On the future of radical politics

Saul Newman, University of Western Australia

Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (Second Edition) London, Verso, 2001 (240pp). ISBN 1-85984-330-1 (paperback) RRP $44.00.

In my undergraduate days at Sydney University, during my brief flirtation with Trotskyism, I was always struck by the sectarianism of its politics. The Trotskyists, or the Socialist Worker’s Party as they called themselves, consisted of all of about three hardcore members (probably even fewer these days). They routinely split, formed opposing factions and, in the most vitriolic terms, accused each other of revisionism, betraying the party line, perverting the true message of Marxism, and other heinous offences.

The irony of all this was, of course, that Trotskyism itself was one in a long series of deviations from the original Marxist line, along with Marxist-Leninism and a number of other theoretical revisions which sought to adapt Marxism to existing social and economic conditions. Yet each of these interventions imposed their own rigid theoretical limits which they were unable to transcend. Perhaps this explained the fanatical zeal with which my comrades clung to hopelessly outdated notions like the centrality of class struggle, the vanguardism of the Party, and the mantra that the Soviet Union—which for a while had been falling apart at the seams—was a ‘deformed workers’ state’ that needed to be preserved.

Disillusionment with the authoritarianism, dogmatism, and blinkeredness of Marxist politics led me to a critique of Marxism itself, through anarchism and poststructuralist theory. Anarchism rejected the state centralism, as well as the economic determinism, of Marxism, and advocated including other groups in socialist struggles. Poststructuralist thinkers such as Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, and Lacan questioned the universal assumptions, essential identities, and dialectical structures that informed much of Marxism.

The problem with Marxism was its fundamental misunderstanding of politics. The political domain could no longer be seen as determined by economic forces—rather it was a largely autonomous sphere with its own contingent logic. Nor could political struggles any longer be understood simply as class conflict. The political field had fragmented into a number of different struggles over identity, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and so on. New forms of subordination—like those in the prison system and psychiatric institutions—that could not be explained in terms of capitalist economics, were being unmasked.

These developments led many on the Left to question the central categories of Marxism, in particular: class essentialism—the notion that the industrial proletariat represents the whole of society under capitalism, and is therefore the only class that can fulfil society’s revolutionary destiny; economic determinism—the notion that the capitalist economy determines all social and political phenomena; and rational and dialectical certainty—the belief that history is a rational process with a culminating point in communism, wherein all social contradictions will be resolved.

Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, first published in 1985 and in a second edition recently, was a key intervention in the development of a post-Marxist political theory. Laclau and Mouffe tried to rethink radical politics in non-essentialist, non-authoritarian, and democratic ways, by interrogating Marxism’s central concepts. A gap yawned between empirical reality—the shrinking of the working class in post-industrial societies, the transformations in capitalism, the abject failure of Marxist-Leninist projects, the fragmentation of the political domain, and the rise of new social movements—and Marx’s predictions about the polarisation of society into two opposed classes and the inevitable collapse of capitalism. This posed a political problem—is failure of Marxism as a political project due to its general neglect of politics itself, its insistence that the political is subordinated to the economy?

The problem with Marxism was its fundamental misunderstanding of politics.

The inability to account for the political realities of the time had led to interventions within Marxism itself that attempted to bridge this ever widening gap between theory and reality. Indeed, Laclau and Mouffe show that there is no original unity in Marxist thought—from virtually the beginning of the history of Marxism there were a number of syntheses and compromises that have been obscured and patched over in the now crumbling theoretical edifice. ‘Deconstruction’ is a much misunderstood term, but it simply describes the uncovering of the disunities, ruptures, and antagonisms that inevitably underlie our accounts of the social world, yet which have been concealed and repressed. Laclau and Mouffe, in a similar manner, exposed the compromises, shifts, silences, gaps in logic, deviations, and hidden voices, to see where they might lead, to see how they allow us to reflect on the limits of Marxism.

This original synthesis pointed to a political moment in Marxism with the potential to go beyond the narrow confines of economic determinism and class essentialism, and to recognise that politics has its own logic and dynamics. This was the moment of hegemony. Hegemony refers to a distinctly political logic of ‘articulation’, in which a particular social force—a particular class, group, or political party, for instance—represents or ‘stands in’ for the whole. For Marx, the social force representing the universality of struggles against capitalism was, of course, the proletariat, whose position in industrial capitalism embodied the ‘notorious crime of the whole of society’.

However, Marxists after Marx pointed to a widening gap between the class (economic) position of the proletariat and their political demands. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for instance, workers have generally aspired to amelioration of the conditions of industrial capitalism, rather than its overthrow—demands for better pay and conditions, etc. This showed that there was no necessary relation between class position and political outlook. In other words, it was increasingly clear that this relationship would be hegemonic—that is, dependent on a synthetic articulation between different political demands and social groups, and the way these groups come to understand and represent themselves. This relationship, in other words, was not determined in advance, but rather developed out of political expediency and was entirely contingent.

‘Hegemony’, therefore, was a response to the crisis of Marxism. As the gap between economics and politics, between class position and political outlook became evident, there were various attempts to patch up this gap through synthetic political constructions. Laclau and Mouffe trace the interventions of Kautsky, Plekhanov, Bernstein, and others to show the way in which they invoke momentarily the autonomy of the political and the contingency of the social, only to return to the narrow confines of economic determinism and class reductionism, thus foreclosing the radical potential of their ideas.

Laclau and Mouffe show that there is no original unity in Marxist thought.

Only with the introduction of the concept of hegemony derived from Russian Social Democracy and of Gramsci’s notion of ‘collective will’ did the political domain really start to be considered in its own right. The Russian Social Democrats, including Trotsky, proposed a hegemonic solution to the specific problems in Russia during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: because of the situation of ‘combined and uneven development’, the proletariat would have to take upon itself the political tasks of the bourgeoisie. Lenin extended this logic with his notion of the class alliance, in which the bourgeoisie and the proletariat would unite to achieve common democratic political ends. In both these positions there is a conscious construction of a political unity, which involves one class ‘standing in’ in an entirely synthetic way for the demands of other classes. However, these potentially radical innovations were still restricted by the insistence on the specificity of class interests in the last instance.

These interventions, however, gradually weakened the link between class position and political identification, and fostered the emergence of a hegemonic logic in which a political position is deliberately constructed beyond class identities through what Laclau and Mouffe call ‘chains of equivalence’. Imagine a situation in which there is an authoritarian government antagonising different groups in society, for instance, a government that denies workers their rights and also denies students their rights, and so on. This would be similar to the situation in Tsarist Russia. Despite their different specific aims and identities, a certain relation of equivalence would be formed between workers and students as they united against a common foe. In this situation, a certain identity will ‘stand in’ for or embody the universality of this political struggle.

However, the crucial thing about this hegemonic relation is that it is entirely contingent—the identity that ‘stands in’ for the others is not determined in advance, but rather is decided in an open field of contestation. In other words, there would be no essential link here, so that potentially any identity—rather than necessarily the proletariat, as Marx insisted—can fill this role, as long as it manages to articulate a common position. Moreover, it does so only temporarily. This hegemonic relationship also changes the identity of the participants—once caught in the ‘chain of equivalence’ different groups cannot maintain a sense of themselves as absolutely different, because they are engaged in a common political struggle. Politics—hegemonic politics—is always an irreducible tension between particularity (difference) and universality (commonality). Indeed, any kind of political identity is a mutual contamination of these two opposed logics.

But if politics is so open and indeterminate that any number of different identities and demands can temporarily ‘hegemonise’ the political domain, then what defines radical politics today? For Laclau and Mouffe, contemporary radical and socialist political struggles must be, first and foremost, democratic struggles. The authoritarianism and centralism of Marxism increased the gap between socialism and democracy. So, they argue, contemporary socialist struggles should expand democratic rights, hitherto confined by liberalism to the political sphere, to other social and economic spheres, thus aiming at a general transformation of society. Democracy allows a mobilisation of rights and a questioning of relations of social subordination. The democratic revolution has given rise, for instance, to all sorts of new social movements—feminism, environmentalism, black and gay rights struggles, struggles against new forms of state authority, and against the increasing commodification of life. New movements can no longer be confined by the Marxist category of class struggle—rather, the struggles of workers must be seen as one in a long series of different democratic struggles.

If politics is open and indeterminate then what defines radical politics today?

Laclau and Mouffe openly embrace liberal democracy, a bold move for socialists. They show that liberal democracy is based on a certain necessary tension between liberty and equality, thus allowing for a plurality of social perspectives, as well as equal rights and social justice. The problem with liberal democracy is not its content, but rather the power relations of capitalism in which it is articulated. I entirely agree with them here—despite the rhetoric of most of today’s ‘liberal democrats’ (who are actually neo-liberals) liberal democracy has no necessary connection with capitalism. Indeed, history shows that most liberal democratic rights, such as freedom of speech and the right of assembly, were gained through workers’ socialist and democratic struggles. Moreover, one could point to Germany under the Nazis, and Chile under Pinochet, where capitalist economies operated alongside oppressive and brutal political regimes. So why can’t we separate liberal democracy from capitalism, and see it precisely as posing a problem for capitalism? Why can’t liberal democratic rights be expanded into the economic and social domains, on the basis that it is simply undemocratic to grant political rights without economic rights, and so on? Perhaps the most radical position would be, rather than to dismiss liberal democracy, as Marxist-Leninism did, to actually take its message seriously and extend its logic to other domains. Those on the Left today must fight for the liberal democratic legacy against neo-liberals who seek to separate liberalism from democracy, leaving political decisions in the hands of technocrats.

The Left today is faced with many challenges—the neo-liberalism of the 1980s has given birth to both the ‘Third Way’ and its perverse underside—the Far Right. The Third Way sought to de-radicalise politics through the notion of the ‘Radical Centre’—a happy medium between the Left and Right. In the words of Tony Blair, there are no longer left wing and right wing policies, but only ‘good or bad’ policies. In other words, the decisions of government should be de-politicised; left to rational technocrats who supposedly know what’s best for us. Third Way theorists even talk about the end of ideologies, as though ideology is irrational, a thing of the past, and we should simply get on with the business of ‘good government’. Of course this should make us all the more suspicious—those who claim to be beyond ideology are, almost by definition, ideologists par excellence.

The Third Way, moreover, has a number of important effects. It pushes any kind of radical or emancipative politics to the margins, branding it as irrational, anachronistic and extremist. It applies an ideological sugar-coating to untrammelled capitalist globalisation—Third Way governments talk about ‘social justice’ and, at the same time, conduct neo-liberal programs of unprecedented privatisation and welfare cuts, which are sold to us in the name of ‘reform’. Perhaps most seriously, the Third Way is effectively a de-politicisation of politics itself, replacing the antagonism vital to democratic politics with the technocratic administrative of social life.

The Third Way brands radical politics as irrational, anachronistic, and extremist.

The alarming rise of the Far Right across Europe is a reaction to this rationalisation of the political. It would be a fatal mistake to see the Right as simply a throwback to the old Fascist politics. This is a slick, new form of pseudo-radical politics, which, on the one hand, presents itself as ‘rational’ and ‘reasonable’ (which of course makes it even more pernicious) and, on the other hand, is accompanied by an irrational violence, borne of the frustration with mainstream politics and a reaction against globalisation, but targeted at immigrants and other minority groups.

The radical Left has lost too much political ground to the Right, and has been largely unable to form an adequate response, beyond a liberal hand-wringing over racism. The political terrain at stake here is capitalist globalisation itself—globalisation would be, in Laclau and Mouffe’s terms, a kind of ‘floating signifier’ which can be articulated in different ways by either the Left or Right. The challenge of the Left must be to reclaim the ground of resistance to globalisation, which has been taken over by the Far Right, by articulating its own response to capitalist globalisation.

Globalisation presents politics with an open hegemonic terrain in which new ‘chains of equivalence’ between different subordinated groups can be constructed. The current anti-globalisation movement would be a good example of hegemonic politics in action. Here capitalism is back on the radical agenda, but in a new way. Rather than being constrained by the old Marxist categories of class struggle and hierarchical Party structures, the anti-globalisation movement is a de-centralised coalition of different groups, and is about exposing new forms of domination and exploitation—environmental degradation, genetically modified crops, racism, workplace subordination and surveillance, corporate greed, and so on.

Laclau and Mouffe’s category of hegemony—as a specific form of universality based on a tension between difference and equivalence—provides an innovative way to interpret contemporary political struggles. Notions such as ‘chains of equivalence’, ‘antagonism’, and ‘articulation’ are powerful analytical tools for activists and political theorists alike. Hegemony is effectively a new, non-essentialist theory of politics, asserting the radical contingency and the openness of the social field. Much, of course, has changed since Hegemony and Socialist Strategy first came out, changes Laclau and Mouffe discuss in the new Preface: the end of the Cold War and the Soviet system, new paradigms such as postmodernity and multiculturalism, and new trends in global capitalism. Despite, or rather because of, these developments, however, the work is perhaps more relevant now than ever. With the fragmentation of social, economic, and political fields, new challenges present themselves to radical politics—new forms of domination become evident and new struggles emerge. While there are many dimensions to the argument here, the message is relatively clear—radical politics can no longer be seen as an enterprise determined by rationalist logics, economic prerogatives, and essential identities; rather it must be seen as an open-ended field of contestation and antagonism, whose effects are contingent and unpredictable.

While some on the Marxist Left condemned Hegemony and Socialist Strategy for throwing out hallowed notions of economic determinism, the dialectic, and the centrality of class, it is precisely by interrogating these ideas that Laclau and Mouffe have radicalised socialist politics, making it more relevant to contemporary struggles. Those who might, on the other hand, be overly sanguine about this critique of Marxism, however, should take note: the work’s relationship to Marxism is a paradoxical one—while it is a critique and interrogation of central Marxist concepts, it is precisely through this deconstruction that it remains faithful to Marxism’s emancipatory and democratic spirit.

Saul Newman is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Political Science at the University of Western Australia. He is researching contemporary and poststructuralist political theory.