Geras, N. (1987) 'Post - Marxism?', in New Left Review, 163: 40 - 82.
Post marxism is a revision affected by 'age and professional status; the pressures of the political time and environment... and then the lure of intellectual fashion' (41). It features the moral commitment of the intellectual and a characteristic desire for recognition. Given the absence of social movements, commitment weakens, leaving 'revision' as an alibi, a settling of accounts with pride and dignity. This lies behind Laclau and Mouffe's Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, and the claim that it is post-marxist.
The classic themes are:
(a) Class position is no longer determinate, or privileged as a basis for socialism
(b) The Socialist re appropriation of capitalism is no longer equivalent to democracy
(c) There are no unifying principles for struggle, except those in L and M.
The debate is organised around notions of simple/complex, or closed/open dimensions, which leads to an attack on reductionism, essentialism, monism and the 'sutured' nature of the social (that is based on 'the social as a founding totality of its partial processes', as centred). There is an attack on expressive totality, but now it is extended to all marxism [instead of its classic varaint in Lukacs -- long criticised].
However, totality was a useful concept, especially as developed by Althusser, although it did have its bad side, seen best in the attacks on all other positions. This attack is magnified in Laclau and Mouffe though -- any schema is now denied, producing obscurantism and an intellectual game. Marxism is attacked as a straw man and parody (48). One example is the notion of relative autonomy -- Laclau and Mouffe deny the coherence of the concept leaving them both with either silence in the face of plurality, or reductionism. This denies the role of politics operating between a unified class and fragmented subjects (50). However, their own work is not so severely treated as we shall see.
Hegemony is to be freed from necessitarian logic. The concept is apparently not dealt with properly in conventional marxism where it is used incoherently -- for example Luxembourg sees the mass strike as a unifying activity, but this insists that this has to be a matter of class unification. Laclau and Mouffe see political initiatives as articulating interests, but refuse to see this process as subject to a chain of necessary causality.
For Laclau and Mouffe, if we examine the history of the concept of hegemony, it is clear that Russian Marxists did see it intended to link the proletariat and bourgeoisie, since the role of the proletariat was to complete the modernising tasks of the middle classes -- but this still is thinking in orthodox class terms. Leninism worked with the notion of alliances, but still relies on the notion of objective class interests within those alliances. Gramsci did broaden the notion of hegemony to include ideology and the notion of the historical bloc as a collective will in its own right, but he then reaffirms essentialism by insisting there is always just a single unifying principle. Althusser referred to overdetermination, but also worked with determination in the last instance.
However, for Geras, this historical survey is a game, indicating the mere presence of marxist concepts with no indication of any kind of use of them. The balance of elements might well be wrong or ineffective politically, but Laclau and Mouffe insist on finding a conceptual error everywhere. [I would see this as a classic drift into philosophy, where coherence between concepts becomes a major problem]. It is this insistence that reduces the specificity and complexity of actual marxism.
The view that marxism was really monist and had to add in other bits to deal with complexity [which is actually close to Turner's view about how Poulantzas illicitly borrows bits of Weber] leads to another game. Any attempt at consistency is an indication of monism, while breaking consistency leads to dualism.
Laclau and Mouffe actually end with an anti-materialist conception of hegemony, and use this to re-read marxism [as a kind of prototype of their views], as 'weak anticipations... [of a]... currently fashionable idea' (59) [classic S.Hall tactic too]. Marxism is accused of being incoherent with this idea. Of course, 'Everyone who knows where it's really at these days will know that Gramsci just has to win... [in a debate with classical marxism]... because in a certain relevant left milieu, he confers a moral and intellectual legitimacy' (64). 'The mantle of Gramsci is vital to a pair of ex-marxists so they may represent themselves as post-marxists' (65).
All marxism seems limited when it is read as symbolic and all-encompassing [as a philosophy, especially as a linguistic philosophy]. 'Discourse' is now the fashionable term instead of plain idealism. Laclau and Mouffe argue for a constitutive role for discourse, implying there is no objective reality outside discourse. They then withdraw from this, and argue that only the 'specificity' of objects is to be seen as discursive [with some further details and evasions and false alternatives in their arguments] (66). The denial of any non-discursive reality would inevitably lead to relativism and 'fideism' [the need just to decide things by faith?]. This stance also means that 'most elementary fact of existence becomes structurally unthinkable without the aid of more or less elaborate theoretical sophistries' [another example of intellectualisation or drift to philosophy, demanding rigour on purely intellectual grounds]. Discourse theory is really a way to deny the flaws of idealism, which it fails to do.
For Laclau and Mouffe, discursive practices create common forms from diverse identities and subject positions, through the process of articulation, 'any practice establishing a relation among elements such that their identity is modified' (quoting Laclau and Mouffe, 67). Individual moments gain their identity from discourse, while 'elements' are constituted independently [ trying to allow in an extra-discursive reality?]. Thus hegemony takes place on a terrain open to articulatory practices, rather than being totalised or sutured. Subject positions, rather than subjects or identities, are seen as the meeting point for articulatory practices. Thus the meaning of any particular struggle arises from its hegemonic articulation with other struggles. Certain discourses in particular try to fix meanings, to construct a centre: 'hegemonic nodal points'. There must [!] also be antagonisms [but not from contradictory political experience as in conventional marxism, rather from Lacan's psychodynamic structure that leaves the individual always unfulfilled by an actual identity?]. The proliferation of antagonisms can develop into a struggle between two camps, but only if discourse constitutes the struggle that way.
The whole mechanism displays a theoretical void. Elements are not the same as moments for example, but this is not theorised. The approach arises from problems in the relation of things in an ensemble, but it is not clear whether this is an external/contingent ensemble or or an internal/necessary one. Laclau and Mouffe cannot accept the first version because that would be essentialist. However the second version is also essentialist -- here, some notion of [discursive] totality 'founds' the meaning of the components. Strictly speaking, there is no need at all for articulation as a practice. Laclau's and Mouffe's formulation that the constituents in a discourse are always in transition, and that there is a 'regularity in dispersion', seemed 'tailor-made for facing all ways simultaneously' (71).
Thus the fixity of identity has to be denied because that would be essentialist, yet some fixity has to be allowed for politics to take place. [cf S.Hall on black identities -- mostly black subordination is entirely discursive,but some black activists want to claim some extra-discursive reality to their common experience -- so do some white racists of course. Oscialltion ensues]. The hardline version, that there is no external fixity, is used to deny marxism, yet it isnot applied to their own work. Overall, 'If society is not totally possible, neither is it totally impossible' (quoting Laclau and Mouffe, 72).
If there are sometimes moments and sometimes elements, what governs the choice? Rhetorical convenience, argues Geras, and gives examples (73). Does it help to know about indeterminacy at this theoretical level -- for example does it help us to explain why one hegemonic practice prevails over another? No, because of the 'theoretical vacuity' at the heart of this general formula. The approach can only be specified following a number of unelaborated qualifications rather than 'desiderata of explanatory specificity' (73). Laclau and Mouffe are content to import concepts from other discourses as well, even marxism -- are these mere 'survivals', or do they need 'concept for what "discourse" has banished, whenever reality intrudes upon the game?' (74). The rigorous logical critique of dualism doesn't seem to apply to their own work here.
There is also a political void. Laclau and Mouffe refer to 'progressive' projects, but this term assumes some meaning from other discourses, difficult if 'one has rejected the very assumptions that underpin these meanings' (75). An adequate politics cannot rely for L&M on objective interests, fixed qualities of human nature, any notion of exploitation, a universal notion of justice. Nonetheless, Laclau and Mouffe inevitably revert to some general critical politics [exactly as in Fay's anthropology of struggling man, or the classic new petit bourgeois positioning strategy of criticising every stance except their own]. One become subordinate if subjected to the decision of others, but oppressed if one is able to resist and develop a political antagonism (76). This relativises oppression -- which only develops if there is an alternative discourse to construe it as such. Oppression now covers all cases from trivial disputes among neighbours to 'slavery, apartheid, concentration camps' (77) [exactly the problem faced by 'conflict theory' in sociology]. What really drives Laclau's and Mouffe's notion of progressive politics is a set of unspoken assumptions about illicit or excessive power. The approach is arbitrary, and could lead to support for any kind of politics, although apparently this kind of indeterminacy is seen as a virtue.
The discourse of progressive politics is also an essentialism, and in the end, Laclau and Mouffe simply opt for popular democracy, as most modern marxists do already. There is still no discussion of forms of democracy, though, and this absence is again significant -- it helps minimise any discontinuities between their vision and actual existing forms of democracy. In a familiar way, this legitimates the existing state (80).
Post-marxism offers a 'retreat from class', a philosophical underpinning for new social movements, be even here there is no real theory to explain them. Marxism remains as the only universal political philosophy. Non-marxism 'will quickly reach its limits, limits continually re created by capitalism and class' (81). The denial of class disregards the material realities, and is as foolish as denying feminism as an organizing form of struggle for women (81).
We must be careful not to equate marxism and Stalinism, however, and we should see the strength offered by liberalism.
now see Laclau's and Mouffe's reply