Laclau, E and Mouffe, C (1987) 'Post - Marxism Without Apologies', in New Left Review, 166: 79--106.
[a reply to Geras's attack]
There is a need to rethink radical theory because of the structural transformations of capitalism, the decomposition class, the penetration of capitalism into the social sphere, non-class politics in the Third World, and exposure of dictatorship in the East. There are still possibilities of liberation, though. Geras has resorted to ad hominem criticism.
The term discourse refers to a totality which includes the linguistic and the non linguistic. Objects are never meaningful in and of themselves, but take on a meaning only after a social construction (82), for example in a system of relations with other objects. This system is a discourse. It is not a question of whether there is physical existence or not. Wittgenstein is right to say that actions are also meanings.
Geras's 4 theses:
(a) The discursive refers to the linguistic only
(b)Affirming the discursive character of politics is denying reality
(c) Post-marxism is relativistic
(d) Post-marxism is idealist
In response, Laclau and Mouffe deny they have ever denied the existence of reality outside discourse, nor that they have advocated relativism -- no one believes in it [apart from philosophers], as Rorty says. Instead, as with Rorty, it is impossible to be 'algorithmic', and there are clearly all sorts of reasons to support a proposition. They say objects have no sensible external being, only existence [but the issue is still does this existent part determine the being -- L and M say no]. They believe they don't have to justify discourse as fully constitutive (86).
As for idealism, [there is an obscure discussion of Hegel as a necessary realist compared with Berkeley], there is no argument for idealism in the sense of pure forms creating absolute reality, for concepts as equivalent to entities. Indeed, Marx himself risks being an idealist in the more economist versions, where the laws of development lead to actual economic practices. However, one cannot abandon idealism simply by appealing to some external object, since mere existence is not sufficient. Any attempt to grasp the significance of the objective involves conceptual capture as well.
The shift discourse does leave an 'outside', though, and is thus a break from pure idealism. There is no simple link between language and, but a relation to other objects is always implied -- a system of differences is established which cannot be closed.
A real challenge to idealism is some account of a materialist process of the generation of forms (90). An emphasis on process is the only way to break the essentialist reduction of the object to its form or concept. There are hints of this in Marx in terms of the links between ideas and material conditions, and this leads to the attempt to rethink the base/superstructure system as terms are no linguistic system, so that the 'presence of each would involve the presence of the others' [as in Althusser then?]. This is more promising than a causal theory. It lies behind Gramsci's insight that the movement of the 'historical bloc' involves an organic link between the base and superstructure [rather than a simple determinism?] (91).
Read like this, Marx shows that 'the meaning of any human reality is derived from the world of social relations much vaster than had previously been perceived' (91). However, Marx then reverted to the old essentialist/determinist concepts. The original insight needs to be developed and broadened in the light of new work in linguistics and analyses of different ideologies and the role of signification.
[Some specific criticisms and examples are reworked, 92f]. The term 'relative autonomy' is incompatible as a concept with 'determination in the last instance', if determination means making the state represent or express the economy all along. The logic of Marxist categories is in question here. The deployment of categories requires an necessary either/or distinction [however, L and M are invoking an notion of a logical rigour here, and an argument that autonomy=self determination by definition -- which leaves no room for any qualification]. If determination refers to a sense of limitation, this involves an unstable relation between antagonistic forces and a necessary war of position [their stance, of this be borrowed from Gramsci] rather than working out notions of determining laws and so on].
Geras limits areas of social struggle to allude to some necessary class basis, and emits struggles over imperialism or the environment, for example (96). To deal with these struggles, he has to deny that the interests behind them are 'objective'.
It is clear however that discourse emerges as a significant factor in politics. Pre-capitalist societies had stable discourses, which generated the illusion of stable objects as well. Now technological change and capitalist transformation alter discursive sequences: new disciplines such as post-structuralism have tried to grasp this. There are signs of this realisation dawning on marxism too, leading to attempts to revitalise it. However, Geras sees these efforts in terms of abandonment and betrayal, as if marxism was some religious object -- he tells a story of increasing betrayals until only a few pure sects are left (98).
By contrast, there is a real history of marxism, where the classic emphasis on the working class as agents of struggle drew from the simplification of social structure once [in 1840s Europe]. Simplification is no longer apparent. As a result, the working class was forced to increasingly extend its hegemonic tasks. Gramsci offers the best developed discussion, and shift towards notions of collective wills rather than classes, and the familiar social practices of hegemony and articulation. This development was halted by a new orthodoxy imposed by communist parties. Geras sees Marxist concepts as atemporal, however -- a backward-looking history is the only kind he will accept (99).
Making links between socialism and democracy is a fully political project, a matter of long hegemonic construction. We can choose just one system rather than others, but not by hiding behind foundational arguments. We can use a 'logic of verisimilitude' [as in Popper?] (102). We should embrace contingent and open values rather than foundational ones. Humanism results from discursive and argumentative practices rather than some essentialism, and this adds realism in the struggle to humanise politics.
Socialism does have a part to play, but it is wrong to insist that the antagonism between worker and capitalist is the only 'objective' one, founded in the extraction of surplus value. Struggle occurs only of workers resist, and this is possible only from relations to other issues, such as the standard of living, wants and desires, expectations. As these relations get developed, as democratic - egalitarian discourses penetrate society, anti-capitalist struggled deepens. We need to dethrone the privileged part played by the relations of production. The working classes no longer privileged as the main agent of struggle -- there are 'no intrinsically anti-capitalist struggles, although a set of struggles... could become anti-capitalist' (104).
Egalitarian discourses play a fundamental role in the reconstruction of collective identities. De Tocqueville, for example, says egalitarianism will spread to all social spheres. New social movements indicate a further phase of development. As members of the the working class are incorporated as citizens, a 'dispersion of subject positions' ensues. There is a danger of 'increasing integration and adaptation to the system' (105). The revolts of 1968 show this possibility. Generally, liberalism should be embraced because it defends egalitarian discourses.
Overall, we can now advanced beyond Marx:
(a) discourse theory can reconstitute and replace materialism, offering a radical historicity of being, and illuminating the process of social construction, without any metaphysical necessities or foundations;
(b) begin generalise from parochial and limited analyses of social change and the growth of capitalism [such as the 1840s], and allow for internationalism, for example;
(c) we can develop political transformations which rely on a plurality of social agents and extended struggles rather than hoping for working-class to fulfill its role: 'There will always be antagonisms, struggles and partial opaqueness of the social' [i.e. no Habermasian rational discussions in ideal spech acts to finally track down validity claims?] (106).
try Geras's (very brief) reply to this reply