The renowned socialist political theorist Ernesto Laclau died of a heart attack in Seville earlier this week. He was 78. Adrià Porta Caballé looks back at his life and pays tribute.
Ernesto Laclau was born in Argentina in 1935, studying history and graduating from the National University of Buenos Aires in 1964. He was active in the student movement of the time and was a leading member of Abelardo Ramos’s Socialist Party of the National Left (PSIN).
“I was never dogmatic,” he later recalled. “I always tried, even in those early days, to mix Marxism and something else.” In particular Laclau was interested in the Argentine populist movement led by military officer and president Juan Perón. His work on the historical approaches to social marginality caught the attention of Eric Hobsbawm, who offered Laclau a scholarship to Oxford. Laclau ended up doing his PhD Essex in 1977. A sudden coup at home made it impossible to return. He stayed at Essex teaching political theory for the rest of his life.
Students at the University of Essex like myself have much to thank our emeritus professor for. He founded a postgraduate “ideology and discourse analysis” programme, attracting students from around the world to learn about how Lacanian psychoanalysis, the post-structuralist work of Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, etc. and Gramsci’s conceptualization of hegemony help to analyse political discourse. Laclau was the most visible face of the so-called “Essex school of discourse analysis” and played a decisive role in reviving Essex University’s reputation as a radical institution. Students who identify with the “Red Essex” tradition had an example of an “organic intellectual” committed to socialist politics.
Laclau was also a key figure in the rise of “post-Marxism” in the 1990s. He self-proclaimed this concept in one of his most important works, Hegemony And Socialist Strategy, which he wrote in 1985 with Chantal Mouffe, the Belgian political theorist and Laclau’s lifelong partner. They argued that behind the concept of hegemony lays “something” that was incompatible with Marxism’s basic categories of theory as traditionally understood:
“Left wing thought today stands at the crossroads: the ‘evident truths’ of the past – the classical forms of analysis and political calculation, the nature of the forces in conflict, the very meaning of the left’s struggles and objectives – have been seriously challenged by an avalanche of historical mutations which have riven the ground on which those truths were constituted”
Mouffe and Laclau trace the history of a certain theme in the Marxist tradition that manifests itself under different names –“class consciousness”, Luxembourg’s “spontaneity”, Gramsci’s “hegemony”– that acts as a kind of surplus or residue left over after the basic categories of Marxist theory have got to work. They argue that the “base/superstructure” theories developed by previous Marxists fails to explain the link between objective circumstances and these elements of subjective political discourse.
That is why Laclau and Mouffe turned to post-structuralism as an intellectual tool to “deconstruct” the problems they saw in Marxist theory: tendencies to reduce everything to economics, or see history as a deterministic narrative, or explain any social antagonism in terms of class.
Their final conclusion was controversial: there is not one single revolutionary subject inevitably in charge of radical transformation, but rather many social agents equally capable of “hegemonising” demands made by various different excluded groups into a single universal political programme.
One has to be very careful here: Laclau is not saying that the working class can no longer be the revolutionary agent of radical change, but that it does not necessarily have to be the only one. Think, for example, about the role of the indigenous people in Evo Morales’ Bolivia. The working class can still play the role of vanguard of revolutionary transformation, but that depends on whether it can still act as an hegemonic force by “totalising” a plurality of political demands, many of which come from elsewhere, outside Marxist or socialist politics.
Isn’t this precisely what we do when, as revolutionary socialists, we argue that the demands made by feminism, anti-racism, LGBTQ liberation, ecologism, pacifism and so on can be fulfilled through working class politics? In this sense, Laclau is a lucid theorist of our time.
But we should bear in mind criticisms made by one of Laclau’s former loyal followers, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek: working class emancipation does not enter the “chain of equivalences” at the same level as other particular demands. It is qualitatively different and has a privileged position as a potentially hegemonic force.
Laclau complemented his theoretical contributions with political engagement. He was a major influence on Argentina’s “Kirchnerism” and the emancipatory popular movements in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. His 2005 work On Populist Reason sets out to rescue the “damned” topic of populism. Laclau shows populist movements are demonised by profoundly anti-democratic notions of “the people as lower passions that can be exalted by demagogues”.
For Laclau populism is a practical alternative to “Revolution with a capital R”. This is not a political proposal we would agree with, but neither is it one we should not reject too quickly. Emancipatory movements in Latin America have scored results, but they also suffer from limitations that we can see today. Towards the end of the book Laclau starts on a “ruthless criticism of everything that exists” in today’s left includuing Zizek and Hardt & Negri’s Empire. This continues debates started in his 2000 book Contingency, Hegemony, Universality coauthored with Judith Butler and Zizek.
As materialists, we don’t believe in immortality – but there is memory. We survive to the extent that we are remembered by others. Laclau is not dead if his students continue to ask questions and keep fighting for a better world. He will always be an indispensable companion for any Marxist who keeps their eyes at least a bit open. Que la tierra te sea leve.