Gramsci, Laclau, Mouffe (and Bhaskar)

Howie Chodos howie at
Sat Mar 4 23:37:14 MST 1995

>From Jon Beasley-Murray (citing Guy Yasko)

>> I leave it to the Gramsci experts to evaluate Mouffe's
>> use of hegemony.
>I'd love to hear from Gramsci experts on this one.  More broadly, I'd
>love to hear from anyone about a) Gramsci generally--his uses and abuses
>(I've hear it said that he's generally been misread by the cultural
>studies crowd, for example: could someone attempt other possible
>readings) and b) the concept of hegemony more generally, either in
>Gramsci or elsewhere.

>From Guy Yasko

>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.

>From me, for what it's worth. I would say that Laclau and Moffe get one
important thing right and one important thing wrong (and identifying both of
these for me is based on concepts that I find articulated cohesively only in

What they get right is related to the idea that society is fundamentally an
open process (in their terms unsutured). I think that anyone truly committed
to purging detrerminism from Marxism has to agree with this. It means, of
course, that any notion of "determination in the last instance" has to be
abandoned. This is the only possible conclusion from a rejection of
determinism, in the sense of not postulating an epochal trajectory of social
systems (primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, socialism,
communism, or some such list).

Bhaskar bases his understanding of the difference between the social and the
natural sciences on the difference between "open" and "closed" systems. In
this sense, I suppose it is a distinction within epistemology (what the
differences are in the types of knowledge we can acquire about real events
in the soicial and the natural worlds) rather than a distinction between
epistemology and ontology. And I would argue that L & M confuse these two
and end up committing what Bhaskar calls the epistemic fallacy.

This is what they get wrong, and it means that they collapse reality into
discourse, where any distinction between the two tends to lose significance.
This does not mean, however, that their arguments about the discursive are
necessarily wrong. They need to be assessed on their own merits. One with
which I think it is important to agree is that we can only have the kind of
knowledge of the world that we do have, and it is discursive (Bhaskar's
epistemological relativism). But this does not reduce that world to its
discursive interpretation.

And nor are we able to discursively invent a world (or an identity) at will.
This is where it connects back to Gramsci, I think. It seems to me that in
trying to purge Gramsci of what they see as his "essentialism", L & M sever
contact with elements that Gramsci shared with most other interpretations of
Marxism, and which seem to me to still be valid. This is that class has a
real, material effect on people's lives. The solution to the narrowing of
perspective that accompanies versions of Marxism which subscribe to a notion
of class primacy, is not to reject *any possibility* of a material
determination of interests (even though these interests are always
understood by us in discursive terms), but to embrace as equivalent *all*
forms of material determination, whether based in class, gender, race,
sexual orientation, ethnicity or whatever (that is to reject class primacy).
This may not be an easy matter to explicate, but there are no obvious
theoretical reasons that I can see for deeming it to be an inherently
impossible enterprise.

Gramsci, it seemns to me, was not clear on these issues and L & M do pick up
on real ambiguities in his formulations. The passage that strikes me in this
regard is on p. 446 of the Selections from the Prison Notebooks and reads:
"Objective always means "humanly objective" which can be held to correspond
exactly to "historically subjective": in other words, objective would mean
"universal subjective". [...]
There exists therefore a struggle for objectivity (to free oneself from
partial and fallacious ideologies) and this struggle is the same as the
struggle for the cultural unification of the human race."

I'll leave it there. Hope it is of use.

Howie Chodos

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