Thursday 20 August 2009

Introduction: Marxism and Post-Marxism

From the perspective of socialist politics, social theory is at an impasse. The identification of Marxism with the USSR and its collapse, coupled with the neo-liberal offensive against working class organisations and politics and the rise of post-structuralism in the humanities has led to a large-scale retreat of socialist activism in Britain. The Labour left subsists at a very low level despite a rise in trade union membership and the election of a slate of union leaders to the left of Tony Blair. The Marxist left outside of the Labour Party is probably in a worse state. The majority of the Communist Party of Great Britain wound itself up in 1991, after a protracted period of factional in fighting. With the notable exception of the Scottish Socialist Party, the principal groups tend to plough their own political furrows. Where Marxist theory is concerned, its development by the revolutionary groups consist of a few insights concerning Blair’s remoulding of British politics, or the nature of contemporary ‘multiculturalism’. But for the far left Marxism has stood still since the days of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky (or Stalin, depending on which group you ask). The revolutionary left has bearly acknowledged the developments in social theory over the last sixty years. Freudo-Marxism, Structuralism, Phenomenology, Structural Marxism, and Postmodernism have either been dismissed out of hand or ignored by hermetically sealed sects. Too little theory but plenty of activism tends to be the hallmark of the left.

Unfortunately similar observations can be made of the contemporary academic left, except the terms of the problem are reversed. Anderson’s famous tour of Western Marxism1 advances the argument that it was a product not of theory being enriched by working class experience, but the result of Hegelian Marxism articulating itself with bourgeois philosophy. This has led to theory’s retreat from an engagement with class in favour of issues around identity politics and subject formation, which has accelerated the emergence of post-Marxism(s). But this too is a quantitative extension of the process diagnosed by Anderson. It is the result of a variety of Marxism2 and its encounter with poststructuralism. However, unlike Western Marxism’s relations with bourgeois philosophy, Marxism assumed the subaltern pole in the fusion. That is despite the alignment of academia with identity politics, the relativising and obfuscatory tendencies that post-structuralism brings to the relationship undermines the explanatory efficacy provided by its recessive Marxist partner, widening the gap between theory and practice that has been the unfortunate hallmark of Western Marxism.

This charge can be levelled at Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy3, which probably remains the core text of post-Marxism. Here Laclau and Mouffe performed a genealogy on the concept of hegemony in the Marxism of the 2nd and 3rd Internationals, and from there elaborate an alternative informed by their readings of Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault. The discussion of Marxism and hegemony takes its point of departure from a mechanistic understanding of Marx’s famous 1859 Preface4, an approach that informed the Marxism of the 2nd International.5 This ‘official’ Marxism articulated by its principle theorists (Kautsky, Plekhanov) was really a positivist deformation of Marxism that plotted the objective laws of capitalism and predicted a mechanical grinding out of an inevitable path to socialism. Before this occurred the practice of Marxist workers' parties was to organise workers economically (in unions, co-ops, etc.), politically (seeking to ameliorate the worst aspects of capitalism through the struggle for reforms), and generally ready the class for the apocalyptic cataclysm awaiting capitalist society. Laclau and Mouffe argue that the working class here is conceptualised as an homogenous unity, propelled by ‘History’ to tackle the historic tasks pre-set for it. Their discussion shifts at this point toward the revolutionary left wing of the International6 and the attempts of Luxemburg, Lenin, and Gramsci to come to grips with the presence of contingency in history.

In their review of Luxemburg’s views on workers’ spontaneity and the mass strike, Laclau and Mouffe note how she recognised the disparate and immediate struggles needed organising into an over-arching symbolic unity capable of challenging capital. For Laclau and Mouffe this stress on consciousness conflicted with ‘historical necessity’, a contradiction that Luxemburg resolved by ascribing the fragmentation of the working class subject the status of a transitory moment. This in the end would by overcome by the mechanical laws of capitalism, which would homogenise the class and organise its own overthrow.

Lenin more forcefully took up contingency. In the semi-feudal conjuncture in which he was working the Russian working class made up no more than 10% of the total population7. Applying the inevitabilist schema to this situation would suggest waiting for capitalism to develop toward the point where the peasantry were displaced as the most numerous class by the workers. After this prolonged period, capitalism would collapse and socialism would be born from its ashes8. Lenin rejected this. He argued a successful socialist strategy required a class alliance between the workers and the peasants – a political unification of different class subject positions that a socialist politics could then be based on. This appreciation of contingency helped the Bolsheviks forge a peasant-worker alliance that eventually led to their successful seizure of power. Laclau and Mouffe appreciated the democratic potentiality of Lenin’s notion as it provides for a hegemonic process in which the play of differing subject positions is allowed. Their chief criticism is that Lenin quickly closes down this potential by prioritising the role of the vanguard party, which derives its position by ontologically privileging the working class. The character of the party itself argues Smith9 was that of a top down infallible leadership presiding over an undemocratic monolith, which is far from conducive to a dialogic process.10 Here, other subjectivities are just instrumental stepping-stones to be used along the path to working class power. This is an authoritarian hegemony.

For Laclau and Mouffe, Gramsci took hegemony further. Using Lenin’s idea of class alliances as his point of departure Gramsci founds his idea of hegemony on the requirement to provide a moral and intellectual leadership capable of forging a collective will, which would have the result of taking the alliance to a higher level. The resulting ‘historic bloc’ is politically complex. The ideological binding agent must traverse the diverse subject positions within the bloc, speaking to each and securing their allegiance to the aims of the overall hegemony. However as far as Laclau and Mouffe are concerned Marxism treats the economy as a self-contained entity that constitutes social agents and endows them with certain historical interests. Therefore Marxist discussions of contingency can only ever lapse back into an essentialist reliance on necessity despite the stress on providing ideological elastic. Gramsci is also trapped by the historical necessity/contingency tension. In the last analysis the bloc is secured by the participation of the working class within it, whose unity is always confirmed by the necessary laws of the economy. Therefore the articulations taking place within the bloc are always subject to determination by these outside pressures. But the logics of hegemony tend to undermine this theoretical closure. If hegemony is ensured by a negotiation between the different subject positions contained within it (as it is in Gramsci) this suggests identity with a historic bloc is not fixed apriori by class. It is therefore only a short leap to the position that the principle of identity is unfixity.

The consequences here are two fold. In the first place there is no necessary correspondence between the working class and socialism, meaning that no position can be ontologically and epistemologically privileged above another. Secondly, socialism must be articulated by negotiating between the different positions emerging from and shaped by multiple struggles. This in turn must lead to a rethinking of the symbolic unity that secures an historic bloc, but without the closure provided by class.

Laclau and Mouffe’s stance is problematic from the standpoint of explanatory social theory. By removing necessity from the hegemonic equation they move in the direction of absolute contingency. In other words, their pluralist discursive account of hegemony treats society as an open-ended fractured totality, where free-floating discourses constitute multiple subject positions that eternally struggle and contest their own identities between themselves and each other. History here is a dense web of accidents and plural interests. On one level this position may have a certain heuristic value but Laclau and Mouffe do not provide the tools capable of navigating it. As Wood11 notes, Laclau and Mouffe’s conception of hegemony means socialism cannot arise organically because no interests are tied to it – rather socialism becomes a good idea that must be inserted into the social from the outside. This differs from the Marxian conception in which ‘socialism was… viewed… in the sense that the objectives of socialism was seen as real historical possibilities, growing out of existing social forces, interests, and struggles’.12 Furthermore their post-Marxist position contains no arguments as to why socialism is desirable, or indeed a theoretical apparatus capable of determining what particular identities are particularly receptive to socialist politics. In fact, the move to contingency implies the ruling out of such an operation. Callinicos remarks ‘a social theory which does not attend to the relative causal weight of different practices, institutions, and agents is strategically worthless and conceptually empty’.13 Therefore Laclau and Mouffe might be useful in their theorisation of the negotiated nature of hegemony but by adopting a model that cannot contextualise it in real social struggles serves to handicap their contribution.

If this observation can be made of Laclau and Mouffe then other influential post-Marxisms that also adopt a play of contingency are similarly prone to the same kind of problems. Such examples as Lyotard’s assault on ‘metanarrativity’ and Baudrillard’s displacement of the real by an unknowable ‘hyperreality’ are particularly irresponsible forms of social theory that could hinder a political project concerned with reviving the explanatory goals of social theory, thereby reopening the path toward a fusion of theory and practice.

This paper locates itself in such a political project. It aims to make a modest contribution toward it by making the case for an encounter between an open-ended activist Marxism and the work of Foucault, who is widely regarded as having provided significant theoretical advances over Marxism in a number of areas. Unlike some other forms of French post-structuralism, Foucault’s project is concerned with elaborating accounts of social phenomena aswell as providing a basis for a new kind of politics. It is my belief that an encounter with Marxism can mutually reinforce the materialist aspects of both approaches and provide a basis to move beyond the theoretical impasses that have marked recent radical social theory.

The structure of the paper is as follows. The first chapter is concerned with an examination of the open ground between the two approaches by reviewing the development Marxist views of power from Marx to Althusser, the critique that can be made of it from a Foucauldian standpoint, and an examination of Foucault’s views. The second chapter links their differing conceptions of power to the levels on which Marx and Foucault’s methods operate. The differences between these will be explored via a Foucauldian critique of Marx and a Marxist critique of Foucault. It will be argued that they can ultimately be reconciled by employing the notion of abstraction found in Marx’s writings and re-inscribing it within Althusser’s more rigorous materialist approach to social formations. Both chapters will make use of extensive quotations where appropriate. Finally the paper will sketch out the possible directions this perspective opens up. In sum, the task ahead of this paper is to preserve what is valuable in Marx and Foucault without lapsing into reductionism or contingency, aiming to sketch out a theoretical framework that can aid the fight for socialism.

The whole contents for Toward a Marxian/Foucauldian Encounter can be viewed here.

End Notes for Introduction

1 Perry Anderson. 1976. Considerations on Western Marxism. London: New Left Books

2 A Marxism characterised by a literal reading of Marx’s famous base/superstructure metaphor whereby the determinative efficacy of the superstructure is effectively denied.

3 Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. 1985. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. London: Verso.

4 'At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces come into conflict with the existing relations of production or ... with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the forces of production these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins the era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure. In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of a natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic - in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.' Karl Marx (1859) 1970, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Moscow: Progress Publishers, p. 21

5 An historical account of the 2nd International, see James Joll. 1974. The Second International. London: Routledge. For a discussion of its Marxism: John Rees. 1998. The Algebra of Revolution. London: Routledge.

6 The bulk of whom went on to form the 3rd, or Communist International in 1919. See Julius Braunthal. 1967. History of the International: 1914-1943. London: Thomas Nelson & Sons.

7 See Mike Haynes. 1997. ‘Was There a Parliamentary Alternative in Russia in 1917?’ in International Socialism 76 (Autumn): 3-66.

8 Socialist opposition to the Bolshevik revolution was often justified on this basis. See Richard Appignanesi and Oscar Zarate. 1994. Introducing Lenin. London: Icon.

9 Anna-Marie Smith. 1998. Laclau and Mouffe: The Radical Democratic Imaginary. London: Routledge.

10 A ‘fashionable’ perception of the vanguard party that is historically inaccurate. See John Molyneux.1998. ‘How Not to Write About Lenin.’ In Historical Materialism 3 (Winter): 47-63.

11 Ellen Meiksins-Wood. 1986. The Retreat From Class. London: Verso.

12 Ibid. , p.90.

13 Alex Callinicos. 1993. ‘What is Living and What is Dead in the Philosophy of Althusser?’ in E. Ann Kaplan and Michael Sprinker (eds.). The Althusserian Legacy. London: Verso, p.44.


Paul said...


Very interesting start, and I look forward to reading the rest of your masters.

You may (or may not) be interested in my previous little dabblings with Laclau and Mouffe (, in which I sought to contextualise the weaknesses in their approach in the well meaning but intellectually incoherent failures (sometimes dressed up as succeseses) of the British left in the early 1980s - failures which still haunt the British left and a subject which I keep meaning to address in my now overdue series of posts on 'whither the Labour left?'

Like you, I find L and M and all that political boundary stuff useful as a heuristic tool, but as I suggest in my title, they threw the marxist baby out with the bathwater.

Anonymous said...

You can find the whole book downloaded here :

Phil said...

I completely concur with your comments about Laclau and Mouffe.

Depressingly, I've read many an academic who take their views of Marx et al not from their own researches, but the caricature Laclau and Mouffe painted of them. What they did was make fashionable a certain laziness towards Marx in British academia that has been picked up on time and again.

Looking back on what I wrote seven years ago, with the odd nuance here and there I'd still agree with most of what is said, with the exception of my lumping Baudrillard in with Lyotard. I think I "get" Baudrillard, and despite his absurd provocations I don't think he's "irresponsible" - see this old piece I wrote after looking into Baudrillard a bit more.