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Professor Werner Bonefeld retires

Posted on 19 December 2022

After many years in the department...

Werner Bonefeld

A tribute by Professor Simon Parker to Professor Werner Bonefeld who retires later this month:

I first encountered Werner in 1996, the year after I’d been appointed to a lectureship when the labour historian and political biographer David Howell (aka ‘the Howler’) was the Head of Department. On the short list for a lecturing job was this intriguing character who I was reliably informed by one of our grad students (who had been an undergraduate at Edinburgh) was considered something of a teaching star in the Politics department. Into the lecture room strode a tall, imposing figure with a shock of blond hair (there is rather less now) accompanied by a booming laugh who more than lived up to his reputation as an enthralling and erudite speaker. Colleagues on the hiring panel were suitably impressed, a job offer was made, and so began Werner’s long tenure at the University of York.

Born into a working-class farming family in Atteln near Paderborn in Rhineland-Westphalia, in what was then West Germany, Werner was an ambitious student, a keen footballer, and someone whose own upbringing led him to want to understand the causes of social inequality and more importantly what should be done to end it. Inevitably this led to a passionate interest in political science which he first studied at the University of Marburg, before moving to Berlin and the Free University where under the supervision of Peter Grottian, Elmar Altvater (inventor of the term ‘the capitalocene’) and other leading figures in critical theory, Werner developed a lifelong interest in Marxism and Marxist theory.

Until reunification in 1990, West Berlin which was not formally part of the FRG, was something of a refuge for like-minded students and young men like Werner who were not keen to join the Wehrmacht, since its residents were exempt from military service. A friend from high school days recalls Werner’s first flat in the blue-collar district of Wedding where despite the surrounding poverty there were some great pubs where ‘Kicker’ table-football would be played and several beers drunk, and at other times the real version would take place in the local ‘Humboldthain’ park (we have no detail on whether beers were also consumed on these occasions).

In 1983 Werner spent an academic year in Edinburgh accompanied by the same high school friend, Andreas Klocke, who recalls an encounter in a local hostelry where the young Bonefeld was first exposed to Scottish folk music. Asking if they could share a table, the two friends began talking to a student couple both of whom were specialising in German linguistics. By an incredible coincidence, it turned out the young woman was from one of the nearby villages to where Werner and Andreas had grown up. After what appeared to be a very convivial evening, the next morning Werner exclaimed: ‘Oh my god, I have some headache… But listen Andreas, I don’t think it will be that much of a problem with the language. I understood almost everything last evening!’ To which Andreas replied: ‘Yes – But we spoke German the whole time’. The recollection continues -  ‘laughter, both off for coffee in the kitchen’.

A year later another excursion to England and Wales involved a course on ‘Industrial relations’ led by Prof. Hans Kastendiek who was later to become a lecturer in Politics at Edinburgh. Werner spent time visiting and supporting the striking miners in Wales and talking to experts and taking part in meetings at the Greater London Council with the likes of Hilary Wainwright, John McDonnell and Ken Livingstone. While Werner would always retain a deep attachment to Berlin and to German friends and comrades, it was clear that he increasingly saw Edinburgh as the place he wanted to continue his studies. Werner subsequently registered for a PhD at the University of Edinburgh where he began a long personal and professional association with the political theorist Richard Gunn, working with him on the Edinburgh-based journal Common Sense as well as Capital & Class, published by the Conference of Socialist Economists at whose events Werner was becoming a regular and popular speaker.

However much Werner enjoyed the intellectual, social and political life of Edinburgh, after a series of temporary lecturing positions he was relieved to find a permanent job at York. Not only did Werner and I get on as colleagues, but we also became friends and for a time when commuting from London, I would stay at his then somewhat spartan end of terrace house on the Nunthorpe Road where after a local curry he would play selections from his comprehensive collection of Frank Zappa LPs on a huge vintage sound system at a volume that made any conversation subsequently impossible. We also lectured and taught for many years as co-conveners of the second-year State, Economy and Society module where Werner’s charismatic performances sans PowerPoint made him a hard act to follow. Even when on one occasion Werner failed to notice that the table he was about to sit on was one of the lethal tilting varieties, and of course, the securing screw had been insufficiently tightened. ‘Whoops!’ came the exclamation as lecturer and lecture room floor rapidly met each other. Seconds later Werner was up again and continued exactly where he had left off as the muffled guffaws rapidly subsided, the audience once again hanging on every word.

Not only was Werner a successful and celebrated lecturer and tutor having taken over Alex Callinicos’s popular third year course on Karl Marx as well as developing and convening the MA course in International Political Economy. Over the past 25 years and more Werner Bonefeld has established a reputation as one of the leading contributors to the Open Marxism network of scholars, activists and supporters around the world. Werner is probably best known as one of the authors of the three volume Open Marxism series published by Pluto Press in the 1990s to which was added a 4th volume in 2020. Open Marxism seeks to engage with the open-ended and often unpredictable results of class struggle and to reclaim Marxism in thought and praxis for a more libertarian socialist and anarchist tradition that rejects the statist position of party-based Marxism-Leninism. Several of Werner’s PhD students and early career mentees have gone on to become leading thinkers in the Open Marxist tradition.

Werner’s considerable body of other work also includes numerous monographs, edited volumes, and articles in world-leading journals many of which have been translated into multiple languages. Most recently he became co-editor of the three-volume Sage Handbook of Frankfurt School Critical Theory. Further recognition came in 2016-17 when Werner was appointed to a Leverhulme Research Fellowship and the resulting monograph, The Strong State and the Free Economy (Roman and Littlefield 2017) provides a ground-breaking analysis of how the German ordoliberal tradition can help us understand the Eurozone crisis and the politics of austerity. The acclaimed Oxford Handbook of Ordoliberalism which Werner co-edited with Thomas Biebricher and Peter Nedergaard came out in September 2022. As a leading authority on the humanist tradition in Marxism Werner Bonefeld was awarded funding for a Marie Skłodowska–Curie Fellowship and the research for the project is conducted by Kieran Durkin as Fellow. Werner Bonefeld continues to be active in the ‘Critical theories of antisemitism network’ and the ‘Trans-Pennine Working Group’ which organises monthly seminars on the theme of critical theory and Marxism as well as the research network ‘Right, History and Memory’.

As the years went by and Werner’s global fame increased, especially in Latin America where the Open Marxism movement was picking up enthusiastic adherents, an invitation came from the University of Buenos Aires to give a talk. A flight was duly booked and the famous professor took off for Argentina. However, on arrival it transpired that a rather essential item for foreign travel was missing – his passport. So a young member of the conference organising team was dispatched to the airport to vouch for the newly arrived visitor and smooth things out with the authorities. She could not believe that the man sitting dejectedly on the wrong side of arrivals, wearing a leather jacket and jeans was the distinguished Marxist professor for whom everyone was anxiously waiting. Her name was Adriana Lombari. Guest and guest rescuer were eventually to marry and their house on Nunthorpe Road became a proper family home with the arrival of their son Declan. Werner loved to share stories of their joint adventures and travels, always referring to Declan as ‘my boy’. At the heart of Casa Lombari-Bonefeld was an impressive kitchen from where many cakes would be baked for appreciative friends, often filled with fruit from the family allotment on the Scarcroft Road.

I am certain that whatever the future has in store for Werner it will involve more writing and talking, as well as cycling, digging and cooking. Above all there will be laughter, followed by coffee in the kitchen.

Simon Parker

Thank you from everyone in the department Werner, you will be missed.