Hegemony and Socialist Strategy... Laclau and Mouffe Reviewed by Brian Precious

Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (Verso, 2nd Edition, 2001) Hardback ISBN 1 85984 621 1, £40/US$60/CAN$85, Paperback ISBN  1 85984  330 1  £ 13/US$18/CAN$26

This is the second edition of Laclau and Mouffe’s magnum opus, first published by Verso in 1985. It is an heretical book. The sacred cows which it slaughters include: the intrinsically revolutionary nature of the working class; the idea that all political issues and identities are, ultimately, class issues and identities; and that social antagonisms can be explained (and even predicted )  according to some logical paradigm.

Not surprisingly, since it’s publication, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (HSS from here on) has been the subject of high praise and the target of fierce criticism. But that should not oversimplify the complexity of this book’s reception: This reviewer can identify three broad strands of opinion :

1)The defenders of various strands of orthodox Marxism who lambaste HSS as a repudiation of class struggle, realism, materialism and Marxism in general.

2)Those who agree with the need for thoroughgoing and fundamental theoretical renovation of Marxism , and even excisions, while maintaining the need for struggle across many social relations , including class struggle at the point of production, and the need for these struggles to unite , to go beyond various transformations within this or that relation or institution, and to construct a new social order in it’s entirety – in other words, revolution – and who see Laclau and Mouffe’s ideas as not only a profound diagnosis of the mistakes and setbacks of the past, but as the precondition for a revolutionary movement to succeed in the present day by possessing  the intellectual capacity to understand the present, and to transform it in ways which prefigure a genuinely liberated social order.

3)Those who have used HSS for reactionary ends. This third group complements the first. These are the people who agree with the image of HSS painted by the first group, but who see this image as a virtue rather than a vice , and who (mostly without bothering to read HSS themselves) use the reality of Laclau and Mouffe’s (L and M from here on) profound but constructive critique of Marxism as a  pamphlet justification for the wholesale rejection of Marxist ideas, the retreat from any kind of social analysis which moves beyond boy scout empiricism and, hence , the “impossibilisation” of  any comprehensively different social order – in particular, the repudiation of socialism. HSS is not the sole work to have suffered this fate, but certain individuals around the magazine Marxism Today in the 1980s (the magazine which, more than any other, formed the political nursery of what later became “new” Labour) used a particular interpretation of HSS ( L and M were regularly invited to contribute to the magazine)  as justification for a politics which moved further and further from anything recognisably left-wing – witness the dissolution of the CPGB and the subsequent trajectory of “Democratic Left” and it’s successors. Never has such a valuable set of ideas been dragged into such a political mire.

Readers will not be surprised to learn that this reviewer locates himself  unequivocally in the second group , while not being sectarian towards the first, and seeking to form alliances which isolate the third. The following outline of the arguments of HSS will explain why.

The book is in four parts. The first section conducts a history of the development of what is, for L and M’s analysis, the central concept: hegemony. The purpose of this is to highlight, within the history of Marxism itself, the development of forms of analysis which were increasingly used –particularly as the 20th Century wore on- to supplement the economically deterministic and historically “stagist” and “inevitablist” analysis which had been inherited from the 19th Century, and which latter was , indeed, given some of it’s most complete expression in the politics of the Second International and the works of such theorists as G V Plekhanov.

L and M cite the first political outing for “hegemony” in Russian Social Democracy, and, subsequently, in the “class alliances” of Leninism. LM assert that Leninism is a good example of a “supplementing” of the deterministic/inevitabilistic (what L and M term the “essentialist”)  elements of classical Marxism by the formation and justification of alliances which, according to classical Marxist categories, were between classes  which should be antagonistic, in order to carry out a revolution in a nation (Russia in 1917) which, again, according to classical historical materialism, needed to go through a bourgeois democratic revolution before advancing to socialism.(Lenin called this “infiltrating history”).

The  classes which carried through all of these transformations were quite widely removed from those agents predicted by classical Marxism.  Moreover, this transformation was carried through in a nation on the capitalist periphery, at a “primitive” stage of development as far as canonical historical materialism was concerned. And yet it happened, and was in some ways successful. (Ask any Nazi).L and M assert that the insight to take from this situation is that it empirically called into question a classical Marxism which had paraded itself as scientific, and it demonstrated that the political alliances and consciousness which can be produced in any social or historical situation are dependent entirely upon political intervention and the winning of socio-economic groups to a set of progressive demands. But,  as L and M comment, the radical generalisation of this insight – which is their political project – was limited by the persistence, in Marxist/revolutionary analysis, of these “essentialist” ideas from 19th Century Marxism. L and M assert that it was because Russian social structures were thrown into a radical crisis – rather than as a result of any stagist development-  that a multitude of antagonisms developed which were fertile ground for a revolutionary situation. As we will see later, L and M’s theorisation of social antagonisms is a generalisation of this insight.

L and M then move on to the one Marxist theoretician who, for them, radicalised this “supplementing” of the guarantees of classical Marxism to the very greatest extent, producing an entire suite of new analytical concepts: Antonio Gramsci. 

Gramsci takes the analysis of the formation of progressive alliances far beyond the class alliances of Leninism.  Though even Gramsci maintains what we will see as the limitation of remaining  within the assumption that a progressive alliance must be led by the working class (what Gramsci called the “fundamental class”) , it is with him that alliances are theorised beyond class and include things such as groups organised around progressive nationalist or “national-popular” demands, treated as specific demands which need to be linked to the progressive alliance in their own right, rather than being simply “expected” as a result of  the progress of the proletariat and it’s allies. The concept of leadership is also deepened in Gramsci. He goes beyond Lenin’s concept of “political leadership” to also include “cultural and moral leadership”. The conceptual comparison, between these various ways of conceiving the formation and goals of any revolutionary alliance, forms the second part of HSS.

L and M assert that it was the “throwing into crisis” of the identities of the various classes in Russian society which led to the October revolution, enabling Lenin to mobilise them in support of  the Bolsheviks under the slogan “peace, bread and land”. Looking at Gramsci, they see him developing his concepts of hegemony, historic bloc, war of position etc in response to the politically riven Italy of the time, and the need to create alliances to – for example- enable the northern workers to find common cause with the southern peasantry, and for such alliances to become much deeper than simply class alliances , given the nature of the demands being made in that society at the time, and the inadequacy of classical Marxist expectations to the task – for example what Gramsci  (and Togliatti after him ) called  the “national tasks of the working class”. But, L and M observe, if this is the case ,  then isn’t it only rigorous and, indeed, scientific,  not to attribute characteristics to a social group which are other than those they exhibit in concrete society? And does this not include “the working class”? That if we have historical  demonstration of the conditions in which any social group becomes radicalised, and they are variously far away from the guarantees of classical Marxism, then we must examine the basic concepts of Marxism in the light of these experiences, and we must not shrink from remodelling, or even excising, cherished assumptions. This remodelling and replacement must go beyond theorising about the radicalisation of groups in society and , given the scope of Marxism, include, L and M assert, the way in which social formations and their constituent levels are conceived. If the subjectivity of a member of a particular class or group is formed solely by the social consensus (or hegemony) of which he/she is a part, and whose politics is moved only by the concrete antagonisms –and the various ways of resolving those antagonisms to which that person (or “subject” or “social agent”) subscribes – then this kind of insight applies equally to the social structures which human beings inhabit and through which, of course , they become socio-political “subjects”: If there is no privileged group in society which confers it’s  intrinsically progressive magic on a particular revolutionary movement by virtue of it’s location at a privileged level of society, this is because this “privileged level” does not exist: L and M regard the nature and stability of the set of social institutions which together make a “society” as resting upon  the way in which each of them overlaps with all the others. If this sounds rather vague, I ask the readers indulgence since we will go into L and M’s full theoretical apparatus below. But it is on this theoretical basis that L and M conduct their philosophical assault upon class/group essentialism and social/historical determinism.

We now outline L and M’s theoretical analysis.  We should say at the outset that a thorough understanding of these ideas does not come quick or easy.  L and M draw upon developments in 20th century philosophy, psychoanalysis and linguistics, and critically synthesise these with  the categories elaborated by Gramsci . L and M are not afraid to use the work of those who, while being philosophically productive, espoused politics which  the left rightly regards with horror. Chief among these is, of course, Martin Heidegger. He is the chief influence on those (intentionally progressive!) currents of 20th Century thought which have realised increasing difficulty in the possibility of fixing absolute meanings. In a similar vein , L and M draw on Wittgenstein and Lacan, and the more recent work of Foucault  and  Derrida.(Derrida, the left-wing Algerian Jew who started on his project of “deconstructing” various canonical texts, and who campaigned against the French authorities when they attempted to ban the teaching of Marxism in the French education system , has said that his philosophical approach would not be possible without Heidegger).

I think  the quickest way to give readers a broad picture of LM’s  theory is  to elucidate their theory of  discourse and, hence, of human “subjectivity” (consciousness, social identity etc), then use this to explain their conception of social  antagonisms  between human beings, and  then the consequences of this conception for the ideas of Gramsci.

People usually think of something like a written text or the delivery of a speech when they hear the word “discourse”. Social scientists have generalised this further by treating all the meaningful  signifying systems in human societies – such as painting and architecture – as “discourses”. From this point of view a discourse is any organised system of meanings.

The currents  upon which Laclau and Mouffe draw emphasise that the meanings of the elements of such a system  are not present outside such a system. That is, they do not have some pre-ordained  meaning conferred upon them outside any specific context of meanings.

This is what is meant when L and M assert that the meaning or identity of a social group (or “subject”)  or social institution is “not fixed or given in the a priori”. If this is true of all these meaning-elements (or “signifiers” as they are called in the trade) then it is true of each of them, and vice versa. No one special signifier among them has a special status which confers a sense upon all the others. Each of the signifiers acquires meaning (ie becomes a “sign”) as a result, and only as a result, of it’s insertion into a regular configuration with all the others.

And L and M have radicalised this further: They assert  that , though there are things like thought, speech, and writing which are usually (and wrongly) thought to be “abstract” , and that these things are usually held to be coterminous with that which people understand as “discourse” (and indeed they are discourses) , it is the entire realm of human meaningful action which is ‘discourse’. HSS contains several fundamental theoretical innovations in one book. This is the first of them: For example, if I wave my arm , I may be dancing, waving at someone, or flagging down a taxi, or saluting as a soldier. The physical action may be exactly the same in all these cases, but the meaning of this action is unique to each situation. And it is all the elements of each particular social situation which confer a specific meaning upon my waving my arm.

(Heidegger would say that the “existent”,  the thing I call my arm moving in a particular way, is the same, but the “being” of my arm-waving is unique to each situation.) And this is true of each element of any social situation with regard to all the others. Meaning is relational.

So all human actions derive their meaning from their location in a regularly performed sequence of actions. (The sequence must be “regularly performed” in order to fix any meaning whatsoever).

What if a new signifier , of whatever type , comes along and shoulders it’s way into our sequence of signs – whether our signs be words, pictures, or actions? We have said that the meaning of each element in our sequence has a meaning purely based upon it’s configuration with all the others. So if a new signifier comes along, it can acquire meaning only by establishing certain relations with others of our signifiers. So in the business of this new signifier becoming a sign, it disrupts the meaning, to whatever extent ,of all of our signifiers. We have a fundamental crisis here. What is produced is a configuration in which the previous identity of the signs has dissolved, in order to become a new configuration comprising the new signifier, which is now a sign in a new discourse!

What we have just described is the way in which L and M conceive antagonism.

Starting from observations such as industrial disputes which arise when workers have the work routine disrupted in some way – such as a pay cut, extension of working hours, denial of agreed holiday rights, pensions , and so on - ,or historical examples such as the uprising of medieval peasants when threatened with eviction, increases in tithes, etc or, of course, the disruption of the various ways of life in Tsarist Russia as a result of that country’s increasing insertion in the world capitalist economy at the end of the 19th Century,

L and M assert that  social antagonisms emerge when identities are threatened, rather than when they are fully constituted – contra the classical Marxist (Hegelian) formulation of a general antagonism and showdown between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat in advanced capitalism. L and M proceed to critique the Marxist understanding of antagonism in terms of “contradiction” , rejecting it on the basis that, for such a conception to be viable, it requires the presence of things which are absent in an antagonistic situation: namely, fully constituted identities: Logically, in order for proposition A to be contradicted by proposition not A , we must, in the first place, have “fully A” and  “fully not A” .But in antagonism, identities are in a state of flux: Two things which are in antagonism to one another are in a situation where the “partial presence” of one of them prevents the coming to full presence of the other, and vice-versa. Think of looking  at one thing close to your eyes and another thing far away; you can’t focus on them simultaneously: The sharpness of one  produces the blurring of the other.

The consequence of all this is that antagonism cannot be “predicted” according to some rational scheme which is “in the a priori” to concrete social relations. And the subjectivity of the agents constituted in those relations – a subjectivity formed as a result of a series of antagonisms , the latter being resolved in any number of  ways (both progressive and reactionary) – cannot be predicted or derived from some rational scheme a priori to those actual, concrete relations. This is because such a prediction needs to work  logically on pre-constituted relations and agents with pre-constituted “interests” –all of which are disintegrating in an antagonistic situation. Hence, L and M reject the orthodox Marxist assertion of the intrinsically revolutionary interests of the working class, and the rationale behind it.

But notice that L and M do not reject the notion, need for, and the possibility of, class struggle.

Far from it. The relations of production are, like any other relations for L and M, the site of innumerable antagonisms and potential antagonisms which, if those antagonisms are linked in a certain way and if there is the assertion to resolve them in certain ways, can lead to revolutionary struggles. And is not revolutionary struggle the struggle to transform or dissolve social relations? That is, to bring to existing social relations things that were external to them, rather than locate our thinking and desire to transform those relations on the identities resulting from the existing order?

So what of Gramsci? The progressive nature of any of Gramsci’s “collective wills”, struggling for hegemony, cannot be conferred upon it by a single agent located at the “motor of society and history” and which therefore has a consciousness which is above that of the rest of society and which can guide society to utopia. The progressive nature of such a movement is a plural entity, resulting from  the consciousness of each part of the alliance and the expansion and radicalisation of  this by it’s alliance and organic synthesis with all the others – what one might call L and M’s generalisation of the Gramscian concept of “war of position”. The hegemony which such a collective achieves will be likewise plural, and not reducible to a single privileged element or agent. And, in ultimate generality, such an hegemony will grow and expand to the extent that it can continue to re-adjust itself as it integrates new identities and demands, and this is the general criterion of “progressive”:

Such a criterion is no longer lodged with a particular agent constituted at a particular social level – whether it be “the working class”, or “women”, or “black people”, or “the environmental movement”, since each of these movements is capable of taking a position  which is prejudicial to some or all of the others. Rather, the general criterion for “progressive” is an expansive hegemony which only excludes those identities – such as fascists- which are constituted in such a way as to be incapable of living in what Chantal Mouffe calls an “agonistic pluralism” with all the others -  indeed founded ,like capitalism, patriarchy and racism, upon the outright denial of some other identities. Such an hegemony is termed by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe a “radical and plural democracy” based upon the principle of liberty and equality for all, in which all relations of subordination and exploitation are abolished – such as capitalism , racism and sexism etc.

I also briefly mention the point that L and M’s position makes fully rigorous Gramsci’s  concept of “war of position” by being able unequivocally to think of any revolution as a process which is extended in time, and which does not take place as an instantaneous seizure of that point which is the “centre” or “prime mover” of society, since any revolutionary project must necessarily articulate a sequence of demands from various sectors and synthesise them into a political project whose content is itself irreducible to any one of those demands. There is a moment of transition ,what Gramsci calls the “war of movement”. But this is always preceded by the “war of position” as L and M have refined this concept.

The conception of human subjectivity as “discursive” (ie formed by discourse) ,and the assertion that all human engagement with reality – including our actions- is discursive has nothing whatsoever to do with the denial of an external world, realism, materialism and so on. The best way to illustrate this is by the history of science: The theories of the past were formed when humans knew a more limited reality than today. For example Newtonian mechanics held sway until the discovery of quantum phenomena and relativity.

This means that the discourse of Newtonian mechanics is not entirely true. But neither is it entirely false. Nor will it ever be. Our ways of understanding the world will always be limited to the reality we know. So there will always be the possibility of something coming from beyond our knowledge to disrupt and transform the ways we thought we understood the world. But this will not entirely falsify our previous understanding. It doesn’t turn the ideas of the past into a parade of phantoms and mirages. We will never know for certain that our latest theories will be the final theories which do actually tell the final truth of the Universe in which humanity finds itself, but this is an empirical possibility! There is nothing in the discursive conception which rules it out.

Looking at this another way, it is the very discursiveness of human knowledge and identity whose capacity for disruption from “outside” makes possible the irreducible human experience of the brute existence of a world external to thought.

As you can tell from this review – which only skims across some of the ideas in HSS- this is a quite conceptually monumental work , which breaks new ground in the social sciences, and which is a milestone on the long 20th Century road of the dissolution of various aspects of metaphysical thinking. The self-asserted “post-Marxist” position which Laclau and Mouffe have staked out in this work, far from being a crass “abandonment” of Marxism, has gone further and deeper than Marxism. Far from painting a Camberwick Green picture of human society (a la the acolytes of “communitarianism”) , HSS shows the human world for what it is: a historically specific construction which is riven with conflict and antagonisms, and the book generalises this field of conflict to all social relations without exception and without privilege-including class struggle. And far from being just another addition to the more or less insipid literature of post-modernism- and the latter’s opponents, the self-styled “critical realists”-, HSS shows the limitations of the assumptions common to both sides of this benighted, well-heated and well-aired debate: chiefly, the failure to acknowledge the discursive construction of the reality we know (the critical realists) and  the failure to situate the discursive conception within the philosophical context of the defeat of idealism and the exhaustion of metaphysics at the hands of Nietzsche, Heidegger  and Wittgenstein ( such as in the coffee table section of  post-modernism, exemplified by Baudrillard).

Because of all these things, and many more, in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy,

Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe have  deepened, enriched and updated the revolutionary tradition.

Go to www.versobooks.com to buy the book on line.