Melbourne #PoliticalEconomy and #SocialMovements Reading Group: Laclau and Mouffe’s notion of #RadicalDemocracy

Earlier in 2017, a group of Melbourne-based sociologists, political economists, labour historians and others in the social sciences who had met at conferences in both Sydney and Melbourne in late 2016, formed a new reading group. Myself and Peter Green of Victoria University were its founding members. Peter is a fanatical note-taker, and I suspect in another life would have made an excellent museum curator. The latest session on 14th of March 20017 was the first that I asked to take advantage of this resource to have a record of our discussion to share with others who may be interested. This week we were joined by labour historian Geoffrey Robinson of Deakin University and environmental politics scholar Hans Baer of Melbourne University. For those interested in joining our next session on Hans’ article titled “Democratic Ecosocialism as the Next World System“, feel free to drop me a line over the Facebook page. My thanks to Peter for agreeing to share this:



This week’s topic was Chapter 4 of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s ‘Hegemony and Socialist Strategy’ [which can be found here]. A critique of the Post-Marxist ideological project of the book can be found here.

The book was written in 1985, right in the middle of Gorbachev’s Perestroika (“in which he admitted the slowing-down of the economic development and inadequate living standards. This was the first time in Soviet history that a Soviet leader had done so” – Wikipedia). Gorbachev also hinted at a shift away from central planning. 1985 was also a few years after China (following the death of Mao in 1976) moved from a planned economy to a mixed economy (but before Tiananmen Square – 1989).

Hans suggested that the book was dated, and spoke of its Gramscian perspective.

Alex highlighted the book’s failure to grapple with the psychological concept of “differential object appraisal”, where you look at some object, organisaiton, or system and see it in mixed terms – some things good, some things not so good, this worked fairly well, this didn’t work as intended etc. He pointed out how Laclau and Mouffe tended to get swept up in the fashionable anti-communism (from both the left and right) which was associated with the Reagan-Thatcher revolution. This leads them to hyperbolic condemnation. Whereas if we contrast Russia and the other former Soviet nations today, with what did exist in that society, some modest successes of ‘state socialist’ countries were universally ignored at the time the book was written. I noted that these were “the countries regarded as communist” – most conspicuous examples being Soviet Russia and the former People’s Republic of China. Alex spoke of the very low disparity of wages in Soviet Russia – a one to four ratio – between the lowest paid workers and the top officials; compared to the ratio in America between the lowest paid workers and the top billionaires – a ratio of 10,000 to 1. People also had their basic needs met in terms of universal free healthcare, education and very low-cost housing. On the other hand, there was no free development in social and economic terms – a result of the cold war (a war of attrition by the west – a military and political blockade of the ‘socialist’ countries by the west, and the depletion of their economies caused by the perceived need to ‘catch up’ in the arms race).

Alex, I think, indicated a preference for the term “siege socialism” (a term used by Michael Parenti in a talk he gave here shortly after the overthrow of communism in the SU to describe those societies) – to spell it out, the attempts to build socialism while being blockaded by the west. I think Hans indicated a preference for “State capitalism” (as opposed to “market-oriented capitalism”).

I questioned why Laclau and Mouffe stated, early in chapter 4:

“we need to differentiate ‘subordination’ from ‘oppression’ and explain the precise conditions in which subordination becomes oppressive”

I argued that subordination and oppression couldn’t be separated, and asked the group why did Laclau and Mouffe claim there was a need to differentiate them?

One response was that this was part of the language of the French Communists (the “French intellectual milieu”) at that time – and had something to do with their turn away from what they regarded as the economism in Marx’s ideas about class struggle.

Alex and Hans drew this towards a discussion of Andre Gorz’ notion of “reformism” as distinct from “non-reformist reform”. The latter term seeks systemic change through a transitional demand – the type of reform that brings about a structural reconfiguration of power and wealth that changes the conditions for future waves of social struggle in a society. The Canadian Health Care was cited as an example (especially in contrast to US health care).


My comments on Laclau and Mouffe’s terminology [My underlining throughout. PG]


Communism: Wikipedia says, about ‘Hegemony and Socialist Strategy’, that it “marked [the] emergence of post-Marxism.”

One of the many difficult (because obscure) sentences by Laclau and Mouffe (page 151, in Chapter 4) is this:

“… the affirmation of the class struggle as the fundamental principle of political division always had to be accompanied by supplementary hypotheses which relegated its full applicability to the future: historical-sociological hypotheses…”

Marx, in the ‘Communist Manifesto’, could hardly have been more clear: “The conditions of” the communist “movement result from premises now in existence.”

Laclau and Mouffe, in their paragraph (above) appear to be unable to critique the common belief by bourgeois idealists (connected with humanist ideas of the perfectibility of man, regardless of the violence immanent in current capitalist contradictions) that class struggle can only be abolished, or transcended, in some utopian future.


Siege socialism: I found a good critique of this concept by Jack Straw in ‘Michael Parenti: A Barrier to Socialism’.

“Parenti talks about Russia’s war-driven siege socialism. And about worker-consumer socialism, Russia’s road not taken, where less emphasis would be given to [what Parenti calls] “capital accumulation needed to build a strong military-industrial base”… But he doesn’t talk about socialism in a society where the forces of production have been so developed that a true socialism is possible …

… marxists through the years have taken the lead in exposing the non-socialist, indeed state capitalist nature of the Soviet system. State capitalism is what Lenin called it.


Post revolutionary:

The anonymous author of ‘Communism, Socialism: Any Difference?’ ( speaks of the “post-revolutionary democratic world system” as that in which there is “cooperative”, “communal”, or universal ownership. This author then quotes Engels, in 1888, on the difference between socialism and communism:

“Nevertheless, when it [the Communist Manifesto] appeared, we could not have called it a socialist manifesto. In 1847, two kinds of people were considered socialists. On the one hand were the adherents of the various utopian systems, notably the Owenites in England and the Fourierists in France, both of whom, at that date, had already dwindled to mere sects gradually dying out. On the other, the manifold types of social quacks who wanted to eliminate social abuses through their various universal panaceas and all kinds of patch-work, without hurting capital and profit in the least. In both cases, people who stood outside the labour movement and who looked for support rather to the “educated” classes. The section of the working class, however, which demanded a radical reconstruction of society, convinced that mere political revolutions were not enough, then called itself Communist. It was still a rough-hewn, only instinctive and frequently somewhat crude communism… Socialism in 1847 signified a bourgeois movement, communism a working-class movement. Socialism was, on the Continent at least, quite respectable, whereas communism was the very opposite… ““the emancipation of the workers must be the task of the working class itself,”…

Identity: I am deeply suspicious of the attempt by Laclau and Mouffe to argue that the abstractions “identity” or “identification” can lead to a better explanation of the formative material relations under capitalism than the Marxist theory of class and property.

Wikipedia, again on Laclau and Mouffe’s ‘Hegemony and Socialist Strategy’: “… essentializations of class identity” is one of the “the traps of various procedures [that] Mouffe and Laclau feel constitute a foundational flaw in Marxist thought.”

Although L Thomassen, in ‘Hegemony, populism and democracy: Laclau and Mouffe today’

(  patiently explains,

“… populist discourse is a fruitful strategy for the left today… identities are contingent [and therefore] a progressive collective will does not need to be articulated around class, but can be articulated around the figure of “the people”…

Laclau and, to a lesser degree, Mouffe use Lacanian psychoanalysis to explain the construction of collective identities, and the key category here is identification.”

Against that, John Clark, in “Left at the Post- A Review of Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and  Socialist Strategy” says that Laclau and Mouffe replace class with what they call

“…hegemonic identities constituted through non-dialectical mediations.”… Central to [Marxist] dialectical thought is that all of our static concepts…”

(such as ‘identities’)

… falsely abstract elements from their context and substitute falsely petrified things for moving, changing, developing processes.

Finally, Laclau and Mouffe, in Chapter 1 of ‘Hegemony and Socialist Strategy’, say that “the working class” in Germany “gave the Kautskian discourse” (the rise of the working class in Germany, as described by Kautsky in ‘The Class Struggle’) “its acceptability”. But in the United States, say Laclau and Mouffe, “ethnic and religious identities predominated over those of class.” Even if we found, in the US, some people who identified as rich black Muslims employing those who identify as poor white Christian fundamentalists, there is nothing about ethnicity or religion in that (somewhat arbitrary arrangement when its class elements are banished) that would help us to understand injustice (or ‘subordination’ or ‘oppression’) and so help us to overcome it.





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