The Political Theory of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe

Foucault’s archaeological and genealogical studies both indicate that, rooted in institutional practices, discourse evolves distinct configurations which oppose ruling class aims but still regulate the body, institutions, and even society. This contingent, historical view of discourse repudiates the Althusserian opposition of science and ideology and fosters, at least implicitly, a democratic coalition of women’s, African American, postcolonial, gay, working-class, and other “new social movements.” Well known as proponents of such a democratic coalition, Laclau and Mouffe also repudiate the Althusserian opposition. They too maintain that the discursive conflicts by which contending political parties seek to impose their hegemony explain values and identities more fully than ruling-class interests or social structures do; however, Laclau and Mouffe explain the “hegemonic” ideological practices constructing modern political identities, not the technologies regulating the body or society. Étienne Balibar, Alain Badiou, and other antihumanists repudiate such “identity politics” and defend the scientific rationalism of the early Althusser. By contrast, Laclau and Mouffe dismiss both the conceptual truth and scientific neutrality defended by rationalist philosophy and the discourses of power/knowledge disciplining the subject and in a Derridean fashion emphasize the subversive potential of theoretical critique. Unlike Judith Butler, who,  accepts both the Derridean critique and the Foucauldian disciplinary technology, Laclau and Mouffe reduce the normalizing configurations of knowledge and power to “functional requirements” of the Althusserian “logic of reproduction” and ignore or deny the institutional determination of discourse. As a result, the post-Marxism of Laclau and Mouffe forcefully undermines the hegemonic ideologies whereby ruling blocs depict their values and interests as natural or universal and justifies excluded but not established women’s, African American, gay, or working-class groups, political parties, organizations, or movements.


Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe

Like Althusser, Laclau and Mouffe critique the Hegelian belief that predetermined historical stages or economic contexts explain social development; however, while Althusser remained committed to the working class and its parties, Laclau complains that traditional Marxism treats the working class as a privileged agent achieving “full presence” in a “transparent” communist society. Althusser faults the foundational rationalism of Hegelian Marxism but preserves economic determination in the last instance, whereas Laclau claims that Marxist “rationalist naturalism” preserves the apocalyptic ideals of the Christian theology that Marxism opposes. That is, Christian theology maintains that the sacrifice of God overcomes evil and redeems humanity but situates the historical process of salvation beyond human understanding. Traditional Marxism considers the working class the agent of human salvation and the historical process a secular, scientific matter, but in a theological manner Marxism also expects the working class to overcome class conflict and establish a classless society (see New Reflections 76–78 and Emancipation(s) 9–15).

This critique of Hegelian Marxism effectively extends Althusser’s critique of Hegelian Marxism’s theological character. So does Laclau and Mouffe’s version of Althusser’s belief that the ideological apparatuses of the state interpellate or construct a subject and, thereby, reproduce themselves. Their version elaborates Antonio Gramsci’s claim that the ideological hegemony of ruling elites explains a society’s political formations. As Laclau points out, this view of hegemony is implicit in Marx’s work, which says that the ruling class justifies its rule by construing its particular interests as universal; however, while Marx expected the growing simplification of history to reveal the working class’ unmediated universality, Gramsci recognized the illusion of such unmediated universality and defended the contingent hegemonic universality of particular interests and local representations (Butler et al. 45–51). Lastly, Laclau and Mouffe’s version of ideological interpellation adopts the poststructuralist belief that, since objects do not simply or literally mirror their sociohistorical contexts, the distinction between object and context, discursive and nondiscursive practices, or “thought and reality” breaks down; in Laclau and Mouffe’s terms, “[s]ynonomy, metonomy, metaphor . . . are part of the primary terrain itself in which the social is constituted” (Hegemony 110).

On these poststructuralist grounds, Laclau and Mouffe make their central claim: that the discursive conflicts by which contending political parties seek to impose their hegemony explain values and identities more fully than ruling-class interests or social structures do.1 As the modern assimilation of the working class implies, contradictions between classes can be harmonious, not violently emotional or oppositional. What exposes the fissures within hegemonic ideological practices is not, then, the conflict of classes but the antagonisms of women, minorities, gays, and others. The conflicts and struggles of these social movements undermine hegemonic literal meanings and conservative identities and justify those movements’ assertion of democratic ideals. In Laclau’s poststructuralist terms, hegemonic ideological discourses construct stable but partial or dislocated subjects whose antagonisms or dislocations ensure that they fail to achieve the “full presence” or closure sought by both Marxism and Christianity. As negativity, antagonism or dislocation does not imply a positive new context or “aufhebung,” as the traditional Hegelian notion of negativity does; rather, antagonisms keep hegemonic ideological practices or social relations from constructing the literal import, full identity, and contradictory forces reflecting history’s predetermined stages.

In later work, Laclau argues that the Lacanian notion of the unsymbolizable real explains the limits of identity formation. As a formal bar or limit, the Lacanian real ensures that no hegemonic block fully realizes the identities that its imposes. Since the subject remains fissured in either case, the antagonism of diverse social groups or the dislocation of social structures matters more than the systematic contradictions and predetermined structures of the traditional view (Hegemony 122–34).

The conservative John Ellis objects that the Soviet tragedy discredits “race-gender-class critics” because they critique the establishment in Rousseau’s fashion but ignore the critique’s historical consequences: totalitarian communism (12–32). Laclau and Mouffe do critique the establishment in this fashion but, unlike other Marxists, do not ignore the import of the Soviet experience.2 On the contrary, they maintain that the tragic Soviet experience illustrates and justifies their claim that hegemonic discourse, rather than socioeconomic contexts, constructs the identity of the subject.

ernesto_laclau_obituary (1)Laclau and Mouffe accept, in particular, the totalitarian theorist’s belief that Marx’s scientific view of history explains the Stalinist character of Soviet communism as well as the liberal historians’ claim that, more than Marxist theory, Russian socioeconomic conditions explain Soviet Stalinism. On the one hand, Laclau and Mouffe say that the Soviet Party grew more and more dictatorial because Leninist theory gave the party the exclusive possession of the scientific truth and the exclusive right to define and to represent the working class and its interests (Hegemony 56–57); similarly, in the very influential Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (1956), Zbiginew Brzezinski and Carl J. Friedrich say that the rational ideals that Marx acquired from the French Enlightenment provided communism’s key ideas, such as “total democracy,” “rationalistic” revolution, and absolute political unanimity (82–83). Brzezinski and Friedrich show that Marx’s ideas explain communism’s totalitarian characteristics—a dogmatic ideology sanctioned by the state, a monolithic party ruled by a dictator, a terroristic system of police control, and a monopoly of communications, arms and weapons, and economic production (56).

Unlike Laclau and Mouffe, the totalitarian theorists go on, however, to reduce communism to an irrational other whose violations of democracy, science, and reason discredit not only Marxist theorists but also liberal, radical, or oppositional intellectuals.3 Brzezinski and Friedrich emphasize, for example, the fanatic irrationality of the former Soviet state; in their terms, it substitutes “faith for reason, magic exhortation for scientific knowledge” (13).4

On empirical or “operational” grounds, Brzezinski and Friedrich assume, on the one hand, that communist violence, propaganda, and dictatorship show what Marxist theories of class struggle, ideological beliefs, and one-party rule really imply. Brzezinski and Friedrich claim, on the other, that blind, mystical faith in Marxist ideology explains Soviet terror and oppression. Since the operational rule whereby the Soviet practice of terror and oppression tells us the practical import of Marxist theory does not logically square with the cynical insistence that blind faith in Marxist ideology explains Soviet terror and oppression, these theorists face a blatant contradiction. To resolve it, they reject Marxism’s claim that it provides both a scientific explanation of society and a practical guide to action. More precisely, they construe the dialectical unity of scientific truth and political practice as a profoundly irrational practice. Althusser treats this unity as a humanist myth, but they argue that, as the central dogma of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Marxism, this “groupthink” enables a “disciplined party” to ensure the “revolutionary fulfillment” of its doctrines and the “violent” elimination of all dissent and resistance (87; see also Krancberg 56).

Laclau and Mouffe reject this depiction of communism as an irrational other but grant that Marxist theory explains the dictatorial character of the Soviet Communist Party. On the other hand, Laclau and Mouffe accept the liberal historians’ claim that, more than Marxist theory, Russian socioeconomic conditions explain the Stalinist system. More precisely, Laclau and Mouffe say that Stalinism brought together a feudal peasantry, an industrial working class, Czarist bureaucrats, and various other groups belonging to very different historical stages but deny that the continuity with the czar’s feudal system explains the growth of Stalinism.

Liberal Russian historians such as Robert Tucker, Robert Daniels, and others say that, more than Marxist theory or Enlightenment reason, Russian conditions, including the authoritarian character of the peasantry and the socioeconomic difficulties of the late nineteenth century, explain the growth of the Stalinist system. For example, in The Making of the Soviet System Moshe Lewin points out that at that time the rural nexus of noble lords and religious peasants prevented the capitalist market from industrializing society. In 1917, when Lenin and the Bolsheviks came to power, Russia was predominantly rural, but the Bolsheviks, mainly professional revolutionaries, were supported largely by a precarious alliance of the small working class and the rural peasantry. By the middle 1920s, the civil war decimated the working class, the middle-class professionals, and the industrial plants and markets; growing increasingly hostile, the peasantry retreated into primitive, semiautonomous communes; and the Bolshevik party and Russian society grew more distant. To overcome this terrible isolation, the party recruited the czar’s former bureaucrats as well as the uneducated, religious peasants. Lewin, Robert Tucker, and others claim that, as a consequence of this new membership and the fearful socioeconomic difficulties, the party grew much more intolerant and autocratic. Thus, to industrialize quickly, the Stalinists imposed collective farming on a hostile peasantry, liquidated the kulaks (rich peasants), and purged agricultural and industrial specialists. With the secret police built up to control an uncooperative peasantry, the Stalinists killed off the Bolsheviks and gradually adopted Imperial Russia’s medieval practices, including the Czar’s belief in “revolution from above”(Lewin, The Making 12–45, and Gorbachev 13–82; see also Tucker 61–71, 94–104; and Cohen 38–70). The Stalinists did some good: they changed the backward, agricultural USSR to a progressive, urban society, with many large cities, an educated population, and a public culture (Lewin 1988, 30–82; see also Daniels 67–69); nonetheless, Stalin’s tyrannical regime came to approximate the equally tyrannical regimes of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century czars, who also built huge projects, forced the peasants into slave labor camps, censored the work of artists and intellectuals, established a strong, modernizing central government, and organized an extensive secret police and a highly ritualized bureaucracy (Tucker 94–101; Daniels 82–84).

Chantal MouffeLaclau and Mouffe deny that this cultural continuity with the czars’ feudal regimes explains Stalinism. Laclau and Mouffe argue that the explanation lies in what Leon Trotsky called Russia’s “uneven development”—the simultaneous emergence of a feudal peasantry, an industrial working class, Czarist bureaucrats, and other groups belonging to very different historical stages. That is, emerging simultaneously, not in chronological succession, Russia’s diverse groups created an anomalous situation in which the frail bourgeoisie could not undertake the modernizing tasks assigned it by established historical schema. These tasks, which included educating and industrializing Soviet society and creating large urban centers and even an independent and democratic civil society, fell instead upon the Russian working class (Hegemony 50–54). In other words, since the Soviet communists articulated diverse democratic demands and simultaneous socioeconomic structures, the communists’ ideological hegemony, not the fixed, class identity and distinct historical stages of traditional Marxism, explain the Soviet experience.

Some critics object that, in general, Laclau and Mouffe grant hegemonic discourse “an absolute autonomy” or “central role in social and political life” and, as a consequence,  “find no alternative short of total contingency, indeterminacy and randomness” (see Larrain 104). Other critics take Laclau’s theory to echo the conservative belief that free enterprise has triumphed and that communism as well as Marxism have died; as Terry Eagleton says, the postmodern opposition to traditional Hegelian Marxism “disables radical opponents of the capitalist system just when that system has gotten more powerful than ever” (Ideology 381; see also Miklitsch 169 and Ziek, Butler et al. 223). Laclau and Mouffe do consider “the social” an indeterminate or irreducible discourse, rather than a predetermined context or structure, and deny, therefore, the traditional guarantees of a revolutionary social transformation. Laclau rightly maintains, however, that, instead of revolutionary transformation, a radical politics requires strategic argument whose success predetermined working-class or other socioeconomic contexts cannot ensure in advance. He grants that, since contextual oppositions, antagonisms, or exclusions, not essences or transcendent selves, establish identity, the various social movements properly defend their separate interests or their political independence. In Hegemony, he and Mouffe argue, however, that the movements also radically extend the Enlightenment tradition of democratic rights. In later work, he maintains that each movement must construct equivalences establishing a hegemonic bloc. Movements should use terms such as “justice” and “equality,” which he considers floating signifiers, not universal or transcendent truths, to overcome their local separatism.

Although Simon Critchley, Laclau’s colleague at the University of Essex, praises this account of ideological hegemony, he objects that Laclau does not effectively distinguish between normative and ethical forms. Critchley says that, if the normative character of hegemony is merely factual and not ethical, then Laclau has no reason to defend democratic hegemony or to resist ruling-class domination. If the normative character is ethical and not factual, then Laclau’s concept of the empty universal is inconsistent because, as Derrida and Heidegger maintain, ethico-ontological ideals require real substance or practical contents, not just arbitrary particulars. As a result, Critchley fears that Laclau’s notion of ideological hegemony remains complicit with ruling-class ideology. This fear of complicity implicitly accepts, however, the traditional notion of class conflict and denies or neglects the democratic import of the empty universals, which, by establishing equivalences, can persuade trade unionists, feminists, minorities, and other “new social movements” to form a coalition or hegemonic block.

Other scholars reduce this democratic politics to liberal multiculturalism and defend the antihumanist rationalism of Althusser. For instance, like Laclau and Mouffe, Étienne Balibar, formerly Althusser’s colleague and collaborator, repudiates Marxist teleology, construes class struggle as a process, not a social context, acknowledges the assimilation of the working class and the dictatorial character of Marxism, but still considers contradictory relations of exploitation essential to capitalism (see Race, Nation, Classe 207–44). More importantly, while Laclau and Mouffe accept the constitutive or persuasive force of discourse, Balibar claims that “genuine” Althusserian theory “takes its distance from any form of ‘constructivism’ or relativism” (Balibar, “Object” 163). While Laclau and Mouffe accept the independence yet seek to unite the women’s, black, or multicultural movements, he condemns not only racist views but all views that grant the autonomy of different races or ethnicities. Echoing American conservatives, he says, for example, that the “dominant theme” of the “new racism” is not “biological heredity but the irreducibility of cultural differences” (33; my translation).

On similar grounds, Alain Badiou, whom Balibar praises for “swimming against the current” of philosophical thought (“History of Truth” 17) repudiates these “multicultural” movements as well as postmodern rhetoric but does not effectively exclude them, totalitarian “evil,” or diverse cultural discourses. In Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, he too supports the antihumanism of Althusser and Foucault but argues that, contrary to Laclau and Mouffe, it undermines liberal ideals of human rights, participatory democracy, and cultural tolerance or inclusion. Of course, he condemns the Nazis’ extermination of European Jews and defends the rights of the “sans-papiers” (illegal immigrants); he denies at the same time that political parties, including successful left-wing parties, do much more than represent capital or support the status quo (99).

More importantly, he defends an ethics of truth in which the truths revealed by events disrupt practices of everyday life or undermine scientific forms of knowledge and require reconstruction by the subject as well as his or her fidelity to this reconstruction (see Barker 76). This ethics takes for granted the rationalist notion that mathematics describes reality and the Lacanian notion that, unnameable, reality escapes or resists thought. Since such uncertain or subjective truth becomes a feature of the situation only if the subject succeeds in retrospectively reconstructing or renaming the event, Badiou considers the consistent fidelity to and the militant defense and imposition of this truth the “disinterested” virtue of an immortal self. While Althusser, Foucault, and Laclau and Mouffe repudiate this rationalist faith, Badiou accepts theological ideals in which fidelity counts as grace and the truth, a divine revelation.

Badiou claims that this notion of rationalist ideals and theological truth undercuts multiculturalism, which, he says, makes too much of individual differences or multiplicity (26–27), deconstruction, which presupposes an absolute or divine Other or replaces class struggle with cultural sociology (20–23), and totalitarian “evil,” which assumes that the event or situation is full, the simulacrum (what one mistakes for truth) coherent and systematic, and enemies and allies, closed, exclusive sets.

He admits, however, that his account of truth does not effectively exclude rhetoric, opinion, or cultural interests. For example, he considers one’s fidelity to the truth revealed by an event a disinterested virtue, but he grants that the simulacrum of truth can also inspire fidelity (74) and that interest and disinterest are readily confused (“[I]t cannot be decided for sure whether the disinterested-interest that animates the becoming-subject of a human animal prevails over interest pure and simple” [78]). He claims that the fidelity inspired by a simulacrum depends on closed nominations such as “Jew” or “blood” and inspires terror, but he grants that the fidelity aroused by truth also “names the adversaries of its perseverance” (75). He complains that, while truth inspires the fidelity of the immortal self, established discourse merely communicates opinion (51–52) but allows that, to overcome totalitarian evil, “at least one real element” of the situation “must be reserved to opinion” because “we must all express our opinions”(85). Jason Barker praises Badiou’s defense of truth and opposition to postmodern sophistry, which reduces philosophy, Badiou says, to “conventions, rules, genres of discourse, and plays of language” (cited in Barker 130–31); however, like Balibar’s Althusserian science, Badiou’s defense of rationalist truth opposes but does not escape such conventions, rules, or plays of language or effectively exclude the rhetoric of cultural interests or values.

Laclau and Mouffe forcefully critique, by contrast, the Hegelian rationalism and theological ideals of traditional Marxism. As Jacob Torfing points out, Laclau’s poststructuralist rhetoric, including the notion of hegemonic discourse, the fissured subject, and the empty universal or floating signifier, effectively counters fundamentalist assertions of absolute moral values and essential identities (6). Torfing claims, however, that Laclau and Mouffe “share with Foucault the emphasis on subjectivation, power and politics” (91); actually, Laclau’s post-Marxism approximates the messianic Marxism of Jacques Derrida more closely than the disciplinary power or genealogical histories of Foucault.5 Derrida does not foster a hegemonic bloc of new social movements, yet he too critiques the “onto-theology” of traditional Marxism.

For example, he argues that, in the name of science, Marx condemns the spiritual or spectral other whose recurring phantoms derail the communist movement; however, he fails to exclude this spectral other, whose presence reasserts itself as the revolution’s spirit or in other ways (Specters 106–109). Derrida maintains that Marx’s critique, which includes not only the spirit or specter but also ideology and commodity fetishism, opposes but fails to exclude these spectral others because they are already within Marxism, part of Marx’s revolutionary spirit or communist movement. Laclau fears that this logic of the specter can include totalitarian practices, but he accepts this Derridean logic whereby the opposition of flesh and spirit breaks down because the flesh never fully manifests the spirit; as he says, “I have nothing to object to” (“Time” 88).

Derrida goes on to claim, however, that true communism requires a messianic concept of justice. As the “indestructible condition of any deconstruction” and the vital “legacy” of Marx (28), this messianism affirms a transcendent sense of an other, including the dead. Laclau complains that Derrida treats openness to the other as an ethical obligation, not a normative political or hegemonic construct (“Time” 95) but accepts this affirmative messianic Marxism (“Time” 75); however, by undermining “sedimented layers of social practice” and revealing the decisions grounding them, this absolute hospitality to a religious or messianic other always already part of us subverts more than a program of transcendent “onto-theological” truth or purposive “teleo-eschatological” action. In addition, this Derridean messianism resists all established left-wing groups or parties as well. As Zizek says, Derrida’s messianic spirit of Marxism renounces “any actual radical political measures” (Totalitarianism 154). Similarly, Laclau’s post-Marxism dismisses not only Stalinist communism or bureaucratic working-class organizations but all established progressive groups, including trade unions, left-wing political parties, and women’s, African American, ethnic, or gay organizations and programs.

In general, Laclau and Mouffe reject not only the Althusserian distinction of science and ideology but also the Foucauldian notion of knowledge and power. Their account of the fissured subject undermines hegemonic assertions of natural values or essential identities but denies the institutional determination of discourse. Laclau and Mouffe argue that theoretical critique resists such institutional conformity and exercises subversive force (Hegemony 109). As Anne Smith says, “Against Althusser, then, they would say that . . . we never arrive at a situation in which a ruling force can become so authoritative that it can totally impose its worldview onto the rest of the population” (71). Smith overstates Althusser’s “functionalist” view of ruling-class domination but gets Laclau and Mouffe’s opposition to his view right: that is, they assume that poststructuralist theory can transcend the divisions and conflicts of modern political discourse and their institutional contexts and expose the antagonisms, dislocations, or fissures which, in Smith’s terms, incite “concrete struggles towards progressive social change” (60). As Richard Rorty says, it is Laclau’s poststructuralist metalanguage that reveals the antagonisms and conflicts giving the subject his or her fragmented and decentered character (see “Response”).

Despite this questionable faith in theoretical critique, Laclau and Mouffe effectively show that hegemonic ideological discourses construct stable but partial or dislocated subjects whose antagonisms or dislocations ensure that they fail to achieve the “full presence” or closure sought by both Marxism and Christianity. Similarly, Judith Butler argues tha more effectively than Althusser’s distinction between science and ideology, a Derridean/psychoanalytic critique of hegemonic domination or interpellation explains the conflicted formation of identity and fosters a democratic politics; she accepts, however, the Foucauldian concept of power/knowledge, which, because it explains the social reproduction of heterosexist norms and identities, justifies feminist and gay movements and groups.

1. As Slavoj Ziek says, “The real achievement of Hegemony is crystalized in the concept of ‘social antagonism’” (“Beyond Discourse-Analysis” 249).
2. Traditional Marxists grant that the Stalinist regime acquired a dogmatic, oppressive character but deny that their broad dialectical view of history has anything to do with one-sided Stalinist dogma—certainly Georg Lukács, who supported the Stalinist regime and still praised Solzhenitsyn’s dissident fiction, mistakenly believed the Soviet government would evolve, not collapse. Frankfurt School theorists also admit that Stalinist communism was dogmatic and oppressive, but they claim that the whole modern world is equally oppressive because they consider Enlightenment reason totalitarian. Scientific Althusserians also consider Stalinist communism oppressive and dogmatic but simply dismiss totalitarian theory—Robert Resch calls it an “oxymoronic anti-Marxist myth” catering to middle-class fears (17).
3. Some liberal totalitarian theorists grant that the Soviet Union applied Marx’s account of history’s laws and socialism’s inevitability but maintain that Soviet communism violates Marx’s humanist ideals. In Today’s Isms: Communism, Fascism, Capitalism, Socialism, which reached its ninth edition in 1985, William Ebenstein and Edwin Fogelman say, for example, that Soviet communism elaborates but deforms Western ideals. Although they admit that Marx had humanist leanings and that Lenin developed a Russian viewpoint, they still explain Soviet communism as the systematic application of Marx’s “principles.” See also James R. Ozinga’s Communism: The Story of the Idea and Its Implementation, 2nd Ed., Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1991 72–94.
4. See also the influential The End of Ideology Debate (1968), where Daniel Bell describes communist doctrine as “total ideology,” which is “an all-inclusive system of comprehensive reality” and which, as a “secular religion”, permits “the assertion of the self . . . in the domination over others” (96–97).
5. As Laclau says, “Lacan is not only, for me, a poststructuralist, but also one of the two crucial moments in the emergence of a poststructuralist theoretical terrain. The other is deconstruction, of course” (Contingency 74).


Source: Goldstein, P. (2004). Post-Marxist Theory. Ithaca: State University of New York Press.

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