Laclau & Mouffe

Justin Schwartz jschwart at
Sat Mar 4 07:13:05 MST 1995

On Sat, 4 Mar 1995, Guy Yasko wrote:

> I am wondering what Howie Chodos, Fellini, and Hans Despain have to say about
> the relation betwee epistemology and ontology in Laclau and Mouffe's anti-
> essentialism.  A friend has suggested that  _Hegemony and Socialist Strategy_
> tends to confuse the two, and I tend to agree.  Given their interest in the
> problem when discussing the dialectic, perhaps they might have some insights.
> Of course, if someone else cares to discuss the issue, I'd be happy to listen to
> their comments too.

I find Norman Geras' attack on Laclau and Mouffe in his _Discourses of
Extremity_ utterly persuasive. G argues, briefly, that while there are
various good reasons (which he himself doesn't find persuasive) for
rejectingt Marxism for "post-Marxism" or non-Marxism (radical democracy,
or whatever), L&M don't present any of these reasons. Instead they attack
a caricature of Marxism qua strict economic determinism and narrow class
reductionism which none of the theorists they actually discuss in fact
holds. Since this is evident on reading these theorists, L&M accuse Marx,
Luxemburg, etc. of "essentialism" whenever they mention class or the
economy and "inconsistency" whenever they mention anything else. They fail
to grasp that any more nuanced view is possible.

G also critique's L&M's "anti-essentialist" discourse-centered politics on
which group identities are discursively constituted as providing no
effective grip on a left politics as well as being either implausible on
the face of it and/or inconsistently maintained. If group identity is
purely a matter of discursive construction, it's difficult to identify any
group interests which should be advanced or to reject the current order as
repressive or oppressive of real interests or capacities which oughtn't be
crushed. Moreover it's not very plausible that capitalists, etc. are
members of groups (and have group interests) simply in virtue of our
talking about them in a certain way. Since L&M intermittently recognize
this, they do not mainatin their anti-essential consistently.

The upshot is that "anti-essentialism" is untenable if it means rejecting
objective, non-discursively constructed group identities, and cannot
provide a reason for rejecting Marxism in any way. Of course they may be
other reasons to rejewct Marxism which are better, and even if we do not
accept these better reasons any Marxism should avoid crude economic
determinisdm and class reductionism. But the better Marxisms always did
and still do.

--Justin Schwartz

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